A new priest-detective


James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (The Grantchester Mysteries),  London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (2012), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 400 pages, available through (Australian) public libraries. (Paperback $15.00 approx. online)

Reviewed by Ted Witham

I am glad to have met Canon Sidney Chambers, a priest who is an accidental sleuth. The Grantchester Mysteries begin in the early fifties when Sidney Chambers, who has received a minor canonry from an African diocese, begins his ministry as Vicar of Grantchester near Cambridge. Chambers is a war veteran who has seen active service, and a bachelor unable to choose romantically between a young German widow and an old London friend Amanda Keating. He is conscientious about his ministry, wanting to be available pastorally to his people and to frame all the day to day work of the parish as part of the mission of the Kingdom of God.

However, Sidney finds himself drawn into different crimes: partly because of his association with his best friend, Inspector Geordie Keating, with whom he shares a weekly beer and game of backgammon, and partly because a clergyman can go where others cannot. For example, the mother of a young woman he is preparing to marry dies suddenly. The woman’s fiancé is a doctor and her mother would not give her approval for the marriage. The match and dispatch aspects of his ministry give him access to the young murderous couple while his friendship with a policeman gives him a reason to question the coroner.  

The stories are easy to read. Each crime is only short, and the characters move comfortably in and out of the stories depending on whether they are set in Cambridge or London or in the great house of the local gentry. Their tone is light-hearted, and I chuckled gently at many points. Some of the dialogue made me laugh out loud.

This clergyman loves jazz and cricket and dines occasionally at his old College where he teaches New Testament. He wonders whether he is a bit eccentric among clergy. In fact, part of the pleasure of reading The Shadow of Death is the authenticity of the picture created of parish ministry in post-war England.

James Runcie, son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, may well be writing from his observations growing up as a clergy kid. He has certainly created an engaging priest-detective, a worthy successor to G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.  Mr Runcie has promised another five Grantchester Mysteries spanning the period of English history from the accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the marriage of Charles and Diana in 1981. I look forward to following Canon Chambers and his sleuthing.

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