The hero in James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is a 32-year-old vicar who has made a fast career in the Anglican Church. As Canon, Sidney Chambers is responsible for a parish in Grantchester. He has plenty to do in his parish just after the war, when he becomes involved in six mysteries. Whether it’s murder, theft or kidnapping, Sidney finds himself a reluctant sleuth and feels that being a priest and being a detective are indeed two conflicting occupations:
“As a priest he was expected to be charitable and think the best of people, tolerating their behaviour and forgiving their sins; but as an amateur sleuth he found that the requirements were the exact opposite. Now his task was to be suspicious, to think less of everybody, suspect his or her motives and trust no one. It was not the Christian way.”
In the first couple of short stories Sidney Chambers frequently ponders over this dilemma. The reader gets to know him as an amiable character who is modest and sometimes feels the odd one out. However, in later stories he is more comfortable in his role as priest-detective. He is even asked to assist his friend Keating, who’s the local police inspector – a plot development which isn’t very realistic.
The stories of Sidney Chambers provide some good hours of entertaining reading at a gentle pace. The reader is welcomed by a charming and nostalgic 1950s feel. The main characters develop in a sympathetic manner and the mysteries are exciting most of the time without being too violent. They remind me of the stories of Agatha Christie and Chesterton. This is most obvious in the case of the dinner table mystery (where all the suspects are gathered afterwards for the big revelation) and the crime where the victim is dramatically murdered on stage.
It is a pity that the author tries to squeeze too many themes in his short stories. He gives plenty a page to Sydney’s problematic love live. On top of that, he obviously wants to bring the 1950’s alive by addressing issues that were present at the time, like the war, euthanasia, and homosexuality. This gives the intrigues too little room to develop and some stories end quite abruptly. This doesn’t do justice to either the mysteries or the social issues alike. These ‘short stories’ could have been a bit longer!
The overall feeling is that the book is very pleasant to read and certainly worth taking with you on holiday.
The work is the first in a series of six called The Grantchester Mysteries. The second volume is already out and I am looking forward to reading it!