Monday, April 11, 2016

Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death by James Runcie

If you've been watching Grantchester on PBS, or if you're fond of thoughtful clerical mysteries featuring priests such as Max Tudor or Father Brown, the short stories in James Runcie's first Grantchester mystery, Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death, might prove enjoyable. Here's a warning, though. Most of the stories in this volume have already appeared on PBS in slightly altered forms. If you think you remember whodunnit, you might be right.

It's 1953, and Sidney Chambers has returned from the war, where he fought with the Scots Guards. He's in his early 30s, loves warm beer and hot jazz. He plays cricket and loves to read. He was appointed vicar of Grantchester in 1952, and it's there he met Inspector George Keating, who goes by Geordie. The two get together for backgammon and beer on a weekly basis, unless there is a murder. If it's a complex or touchy case, either may call the other for help. Why is Sidney Chambers involved? "It was none of his business; but then he remembered that, as a priest, everything was his business."

In this first volume, readers meet the characters that have ongoing roles in the books and the TV series; Sidney, Geordie, the two women that Sidney is attracted to, the wealthy Amanda Kendall and the widow Hildegard Staunton, as well as Sidney's sister, Jenny, and her friends. And, Sidney and Geordie find themselves involved in cases dealing with the murder of a young woman, not yet eighteen, at a jazz club, a forged painting, the theft of an engagement ring, the murder of a wealthy patron of the arts. In all the cases, Geordie represents the legal aspect of the investigation while Sidney tends to look at every investigation as a story about people with human failings. He looks at the moral aspects of the mysteries.

The Grantchester mysteries are stories featuring mystery, poetry, thoughtful discussions of the state of the world in 1953 in England. The stories are observations as to the lifestyles and opinions in England at that period of time. There are observations about classes, race, homosexuality. The discussions and observations are part of the appeal of these quiet mysteries.

But, it's hard to have an appealing mystery series without an interesting sleuth. The Grantchester mysteries combine the skills of an amateur and a police detective, but Sidney Chambers is obviously the one who depends on his knowledge, understanding and sympathy for his fellow human beings, with all their failings and weaknesses. Runcie's mysteries may seem simple, but, like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, Sidney understands his neighbors. Often he struggles to find that understanding, but Sidney's struggles add to the pleasure of the book.

Even if you've seen the episodes on PBS, it's worth picking up Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death to hear the musings about morals and poetry, and life.

James Runcie's website is

Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death by James Runcie. Bloomsbury. 2012. 9781632862891 (paperback), 392p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.


Jeffrey Meyerson said...

To be honest, I watched the first series and it left me cold. Lately, a lot of these British mystery series seem to be set in the 1950s (FATHER BROWN, TOMMY AND TUPPENCE) and it is a period that just doesn't work for me at all. I'm not watching the second and I won't be reading the books.

Libby Dodd said...

I appreciate your synopsis. Part of the appeal is the "soft" quality, in the midst of some intense activities.
I'm sorry Jeffrey is not engaged by 1950 Britain, but it's good he recognizes that it's the time and not the quality of the writing or production.

Lesa said...

Like Libby, I understand that the 50s in Britain aren't your interest, Jeff. I find it fascinating, knowing how much England was still suffering after the war. But, you certainly have good reasons not to be interested in the books or TV.

Lesa said...

You're right, Libby. I like the thoughtfulness and poetry, Sidney in the midst of the post-War problems.

Bonnie K. said...

I've been watching Grantchester and love it. I, also, like Father Brown. PBS has some great programs. I plan to get Runcie's books.