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Review: Sidney Chambers and the Problem Of Evil

James Runcie. Picture:  Ian Rutherford

James Runcie. Picture: Ian Rutherford

  • by ALLAN MASSIE
 

JAMES Runcie’s “Grantchester Mysteries” are not really very mysterious.

Sidney Chambers and the Problem Of Evil

James Runcie

Bloomsbury, 304pp, £14.99

The question of whodunnit is pursued in a leisurely manner, and even when, as in the first of the four stories which make up the book, the crime is apparently horrifying, the investigation is leisurely, even perfunctory. Runcie has no interest in police procedure. For many readers, this is doubtless a point in his favour. Yet, though his amateur detective, Sidney Chambers, is an Anglican priest, the books don’t really hark back to what is often called the golden age of English detective fiction. The “puzzle” is not puzzling, though in one of the stories its solution is as improbable as anything contrived by Dorothy L Sayers or Ngaio Marsh.

There are murders in only two of the stories. In the first, which gives its title to the book, a killer is targeting some of Cambridge’s numerous clergymen, killing them with a knife, and leaving dead birds on doorsteps as a warning. There is much talk about the problem of evil, but this is not a question which one can expect to see explored in any depth.

The second story concerns the theft of a painting from the Fitzwilliam Museum, attention being diverted from the crime by a beautiful girl parading naked through the gallery while singing a French love-song. (It’s the 60s, so this may be what was then called a “happening”).The third deals with the drowning of an actor while filming Sayers’s novel The Nine Tailors, Canon Chambers having been improbably recruited to play a clergyman in the movie, and the fourth with the theft of a week-old baby from a hospital.

The crimes and subsequent investigation are interesting enough, but no more than that. The narrative meanders slowly, and it is soon clear that Runcie is not greatly interested in what happens, certainly not in making it dramatic. Indeed, one might ask whether the book belongs on the crime shelves at all. Runcie has been compared to Alexander McCall Smith, and there is a resemblance between his work and McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels. In both the central question is less “what has happened?” or “who is guilty?” than “how should people behave?” Both writers are generous and sympathetic moralists. When in one of these stories, Chambers in effect echoes Christ’s command to go away and sin no more, it rings true. His intervention makes the guilty person put things right.

In the golden age of detective fiction, authors regularly sought to make their detectives memorable by making them eccentric (Poirot) or giving them a mass of affectations (Wimsey). In contrast Runcie’s priest is a decent, conscientious, recently married man, unremarkable in most ways. There is a running joke about his German wife’s suspicion that he is too susceptible to other, younger, and perhaps more attractive women, but there is no suggestion that she has reason to be jealous. He is indeed a devoted husband, happy to make their night-time cocoa – a nice period touch, though Horlicks would have been even better. Indeed her only real rival is his ageing Labrador.

Runcie’s Sidney Chambers books are agreeably unpretentious, yet they ring true. Most of the characters try most of the time to behave well. Some, when they fail and behave badly, are ashamed. This makes them truer to common experience than most crime novels are. Yet in one respect these are very unusual books for our time, because Christianity and the practice of religion are central to Runcie’s themes. The function of the dialogue, which rarely seeks to catch the rhythm of common speech, is to explore and examine right and wrong. Runcie and his Sidney Chambers are concerned with souls rather than acts; the effect of the crime on the criminal is the heart of the matter.

At the same time Runcie wears his seriousness lightly. There is a good deal of quiet domestic comedy, some of which arises from his awareness of how differently people appear to different people. Nobody would pretend that these are realistic stories; yet they invite the reader to consider the nature of the reality of human relations – and they do so in a manner that is both charming and occasionally disconcerting. Sidney Chambers is frequently surprised to find that others see him in a way that he doesn’t recognize himself. And this is surely true to common experience.

 

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