Book review: Sidney Chambers And The Shadow Of Death
‘AND is there honey still for tea?” When the hero is a learned young country vicar, and one of two love interests is named Hildegard, after the 12th century Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen, you know you’re in pretty refined company for a detective series. Opera-loving Inspector Morse would appear to have a rival.
Novelist James Runcie’s first foray into the mystery genre is set not in the city of dreaming spires but in the 1950s Cambridge village of Grantchester, the place famously commemorated for its “holy quiet” by Rupert Brooke in his poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.
Runcie winks slyly at the irony of this in his opening chapter, but you’ll find no other reference to Brooke’s famous lines – and, while plenty of people offer the vicar tea, there’s never any buttered toast or honey to go with it.
And in Runcie’s retro world, Grantchester belies its bucolic image. The year from autumn 1953 to October 1954 sees a daunting body count of ordinary people undone by jealousy, desire or revenge. All the tales acknowledge their debt to Agatha Christie: plots come to tidy conclusions.
When a local solicitor is found dead at his desk, it’s Sidney, rather than his police inspector friend Geordie, who works out exactly what happened, and stops another tragedy. And when a priceless engagement ring goes missing at a dinner party, it’s Sidney who does a Poirot-style re-enactment before the culprit is revealed.
An elderly parent meets an untimely end in another case; here Sidney acts on his suspicions, putting his pastoral counselling skills to good use. And in the last of the six interconnected stories, it’s the vicar who discovers why an amateur performance of Julius Caesar, directed by the local coroner, turned so ugly on its opening night.
The twists won’t dumbfound anyone; but this is engaging storytelling that probes all human frailty.
Two crimes take place in the vicar’s native London – a canny way of alleviating the Midsomer Murders effect, where successive victims, suspects and witnesses all seem to know each other. Four serious incidents requiring a vicar’s quiet probing is quite enough for one small parish in a year.
The best story, while it takes place on Sidney’s patch, doesn’t involve him much at all. Things turn menacing when his sister’s friend Amanda, a generous-hearted and unlikely Hampstead heiress, is held hostage by an unhinged recluse with a houseful of fake old masters and one genuine Holbein. Told like this it sounds unlikely; but the exchanges through the locked door of a downstairs room with barred windows make one consider just how dark a crimewriter Runcie would be, freed from the genteel water meadows of his chosen setting here.
As it is, he has a hero who, at the age of 32, is not just vicar of one of the most sought-after parishes in the diocese of Ely, but privileged in other ways too: he’s tall, good-looking, and well connected.
His quiet acceptance of class sits uneasily, half a century on, but he’s a man of his time, and that time is faithfully conjured.
He’ll be too serious for some – he worries about what New Testament passage to preach about on Sundays; or else he ponders the nature of heaven, or what it means to be a good Christian. But he also likes jazz, warm beer, cricket and backgammon. And he’s looking for love.
That should leave Runcie, son of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, plenty of scope for expanding Sidney’s world in the five Grantchester Mysteries he still has up his sleeve. It will be interesting to see how the young vicar matures. «
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