A couple of years ago, I watched the Grantchester mysteries on PBS Masterpiece. I enjoyed them thoroughly (I would enjoy anything with Robson Green in it!) and didn’t think much more about it. But when I discovered that the show was based on a series of books by James Runcie, I thought I would give them a try.
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is admirably suited for television adaptation. It’s episodic: each chapter is a short, standalone mystery, but it has the continuity of a novel. The crimes range from theft to art forgery to questionable suicide to outright murder — a lot of variety for a smallish town just outside of Cambridge, you may think, but of course that’s the detective-story tradition, isn’t it?
The title character, Sidney Chambers, is a vicar. He gets mixed up in these crimes in part because one of his closest friends is the local Detective Inspector Geordie Keating: they play backgammon in the pub and share shop talk, and sometimes Keating sends Sidney in to talk to someone who might not open up to a police officer. Sidney is a very appealing character. He’s a reluctant detective, because he thinks he should be devoting himself to his vocation as a priest, but he’s so intelligent and observant that he can hardly help making discoveries. He’s kind and empathetic, and respects the privacy of his congregants. He has a passion for jazz, and would prefer whisky to the sherry he’s constantly offered (though he would never say so.)
Besides all this, Sidney wrestles with the morality and ethics of his faith, and truly believes in his calling. It’s rare to find a priest in any novel who actually understands even the rudiments of Christianity (try Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene for that), but Sidney is a good priest without being the least bit sanctimonious. He does what priests actually do — including things like supervising the building of the manger at Christmas, attending meetings, and visiting sick people — and he worries about his prayer life. James Runcie is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury. I see he knows the life!
Runcie’s prose is no better than workmanlike, but it was good enough to make it charming. If a cozy ecclesiastical mystery appeals, or if you enjoyed the television performance, I can definitely recommend this, and I will probably pick up the next in the series (I think he has written six of these!)