Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, by James Runcie, is one of those books that I thought I would like, but it left me cold, and I can’t pinpoint why. It may sound stupid, but I do like to work out my reasons for not enjoying a book: sometimes it’s easy, when I hate the subject matter, or can’t relate to the characters, or can’t get along with the style it’s written in. Whatever the reason, I tend to feel quite strongly about books I dislike, (just as I do about the ones I love), so it puzzles me when I come across a book like this that doesn’t evoke any particular emotion. I didn’t really like it, but I didn’t hate it either: somehow it didn’t quite gel, and I doubt if I’ll be able to muster up enough enthusiasm to read any of the proposed follow-ups.
This is 1953, and Canon Sidney Chambers is the 32-year-old Vicar of Grantchester, who finds himself, somewhat unexpectedly, solving crimes aided, by his friend Inspector Geordie Keating (who would claim that the vicar is helping him). Sidney is a gentle soul, who cares for his flock as best he can, has a dog called Dickens, and enjoys beer, jazz, cricket, Shakespeare and Tolstoy. He’s intelligent, kind and a bit of a hunk – tall, with dark-brown hair and hazelnut eyes.
He doesn’t have a great deal of faith in his abilities, as a clergyman, or as an amateur detective, frequently wishing that he was a better priest, and worrying that he neglects his true calling while he is engaged in sleuthing. However, other people have faith in him and they trust him, revealing secrets which they would never tell the police. Like all good amateur sleuths, Sidney has an excellent understanding of human nature. However, I found it difficult to understand his motivation for solving crimes – he’s saddened by evil and wrong-doing, but he doesn’t seek retribution, and doesn’t seem to be concerned about souls in the way that Father Brown is. Actually, I’ve never managed to connect with Chesterton’s crime-fighting priest either. I revisited him after watching some of the TV programmes (which were not a bit as I remembered them) and didn’t get along any better than I did first time around.
Anyway, back to Canon Sidney Chambers. He doesn’t judge people, and is surprisingly tolerant for a 1950s clergyman, recognising that everyone is a mix of good and bad, and that people make decisions and take actions for all kinds of reasons. I think he approaches his investigations as one might approach a crossword – it’s an intellectual challenge, and he wants to know the answers. So he pieces together scraps of information, looking at the clues again and again as fresh details come to light, and considering the facts as dispassionately and rationally as he can.
At this point I should add that while Sidney is set on a life of celibacy, he obviously enjoys the company of women, and there is a love interest of sorts provided by clever, wealthy Amanda, who his sister’s best friend, and quiet Hildegard, the German widow of a murder victim.
We learn a lot about Sidney during the short stories in this book, as he investigates murders, a stolen ring, and an art forgery, and he ought to be a thoroughly engaging character, but as far as I was concerned he didn’t quite come to life, and nor did any of the other characters, which was a shame, because they are carefully created, the plots are well thought out, and the period detail is good. Another bonus, from my point of view, is that all the stories in ‘Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death’ are what I would describe as ‘cosy’ crime, which I normally enjoy – I don’t want to read gory descriptions of murders or people being beaten up.
Anyway, as I said to start with, I had a problem with this book because in theory it ticked all the right boxes, but it remained kind of flat. James Runcie, son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is planning a series of six Grantchester Mysteries following Sidney’s adventures over a 30-year period, and part of me wonders if I might warm to him as the series progresses. But on the whole I really don’t care enough about him to want to read any more.