Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death: The Grantchester Mysteries by James Runcie
(Bloomsbury, 2012, 400 pages)
This first installment of the proposed six volume Sidney Chambers mystery series (three have been published to this point) is a very enjoyable set of period whodunits. In The Shadow of Death, we are introduced to Sidney Chambers, the young parish priest of the village of Grantchester in Cambridgeshire, England. The stories, which consist of six short interrelated mysteries, are set in the early 1950s. As a vicar, Chambers is able to make enquiries and question suspects without arousing suspicions. This ability, along with his intelligence and innate sense of justice, make Chambers an invaluable resource to his friend Inspector Geordie Keating. Sidney investigates a suspicious suicide, tracks downs murderers, and recovers stolen jewels.
As fanciful as the character of the detective priest might seem, the series is firmly grounded in reality. Sidney’s church, St Andrews and St Mary, is the actual parish church in the real village of Grantchester. In addition, the author James Runcie is the son of former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, and James has said that Chambers is loosely based on his father. The books deal with social issues of the time, displaying casually racist, homophobic, and sexist attitudes. It isn’t heavy handed in its treatment of these issues, but Chambers is a very serious and sympathetic moral voice.
I really enjoyed this novel. While a couple of the solutions to the mysteries fell a little flat in my view, the stories are well told and the characters are interesting. The stories remain fairly light, but Chambers finds time to reflect on the problem of evil and to question his vocation. One element I particularly liked was the realistic depiction of the pressure that Sidney finds himself under as he tries to keep up with both his parish responsibilities and his new-found sleuthing career. This dynamic really depicts the stress of two careers where you are never fully “off duty.” I always enjoy fictional accounts of clergy, and this one is written by someone who is eminently qualified to depict the everyday habits and attitudes of a Church of England priest. Runcie does it well, and I am looking forward both to the other novels in this series and to the new TV series Granchester based on the novel.