Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

sidney-chambers-shadow-of-deathA 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!)

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10 Responses to Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

  1. Runcie has written five books of stories in the Grantchester series.

    I, like you, arrived at the books through the series, because I was totally smitten with the smoldering James Norton’s performance and its exquisite balance with Robson Green’s Geordie. The television series is, in every way, superior to the books. The TV characters are far more complex, the plot lines less obvious and more intriguing, and the relationship between Geordie and Sidney stronger, than anything Runcie put on the page. A significant plot deviation makes it impossible for Runcie ever to catch up with how troubled and tortured Sidney is on television.

    That said, Runcie’s work is, as you state, workmanlike, with each book covering about a decade in Sidney’s life. I think the next book will be the last, as it should be. May we hope that the series goes on and on and that Norton and Green both continue to take off their shirts as often as possible for the edification of TV watchers on both sides of the pond.

    • Jenny says:

      A-fricking-men. From your lips to ITV’s ears.

      I do agree, by the way, about the show being better. But when we’re between shows, what else are we supposed to do?

  2. Mary Beth says:

    I have read the first four of Runcie’s Sidney Chambers books and I like them much better than the Masterpiece Theatre version. I watched the first season, then read the first couple books. I like the direction Runcie takes Sidney as opposed to PBS. I finished the fourth about a month ago and I was not as enthusiastic for the stories as the earlier ones. However, Runcie gives readers a perspective on the Church of England as well as the nature of sin, evil, and human nature.

    • Jenny says:

      What do you like better about the stories? I found them a bit predictable compared to the show, and I liked the characters better. I do agree with you about the insights about the Church of England in the books — to my mind, the view on being a real vicar is probably the best part about the books (besides Sidney himself as a character.)

      • Mary Beth says:

        I definitely agree that the books give a better view of what a real vicar is. I think they also take into consideration what faith is and how important it is to Sidney’s choices and identity. I think the character development is less predictable, in some respects, not all, for characters like Amanda and Geordie in the books. And Sidney for that matter. Amanda in the PBS version is the frustrated woman under the thumb of her father and convention. She never has the courage to follow her own mind. She is the stereotype of privileged woman suppressed by the patriarchy. She needs a copy of The Feminine Mystique to show up on her doorstep for her story to be complete. In the books, she does. Here’s a spoiler for the TV version, but that Sidney and Amanda never resolve their romantic relationship – one Sidney knows is wrong – and that Amanda marries, doesn’t happen in the books. Geordie is a more complex fellow (at least in the first couple books) and has more to add to Sidney’s development as a vicar. Hildegard drops from the PBS second season, and she is a very important character later in the books. Sidney loves Hildegard in a way that is more mature and real than Amanda. She becomes his most important critic and champion. And Spoiler voices the anxieties and frustrations of being a Vicar’s wife – especially a vicar who also gets involved in crime solving. Runcie also is interesting in his commentary on mid-twentieth century politics and culture in the books. Sidney is allowed to age, he reflects a deeper commentary on changing society – sometimes conservative, other times accepting of changing norms. Leonard’s storyline is much more overt in the PBS version. I think Runcie’s commentary on Leonard’s sexuality is much more sophisticated and important to Leonard’s character development than the TV version – which is heavy-handed. I don’t know if Leonard will have a relationship in the next book, but the latest season of Grantchester had this develop. Yet, Runcie is a part of the PBS program. So, he must be OK with how his stories are being produced for television. I imagine I have too much to say about this. I suffer from a familiar the book-is-better-than-the-film syndrome.

      • Jenny says:

        You didn’t have too much to say about this by any means! I’m delighted that you came back to comment. I haven’t read all the books (or indeed seen all the series) so I am so glad you pointed out these important differences. I am especially glad to hear about the roles of the women.

        I’m not sure Runcie would have a really guiding role in the TV series, even if he is part of it. Authors are often pushed to the side and told that this is what will sell to a certain market or focus group (and it’s obviously true — the series has been extremely popular.) He has written for radio drama before and would likely know how things get adapted, but that’s not to say that he’s thrilled with how it’s gone. Though, who knows?

  3. These sound charming. I’ve not seen the show (always saw the previews during Downton Abbey!) but it’s always good to get another recommendation for light mysteries (for me and my library patrons.)

    • Jenny says:

      I would imagine that the TV tie-in would make them even more appealing to your patrons (as they did to me.) I do recommend the show, too! You can watch it on Amazon Prime!

  4. Diane Challenor says:

    Ooooo this one looks good. I’ve added it to my TBR list. Thank you!

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