Reading James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death reminded me of three classical detectives of fiction – Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, and Father Brown. In the nature of the short stories, which toy with the predominant format in similar stories of an unseen murder, investigation, and denouement, I felt some of Conan Doyle; in the setting of a rural and academic Cambridge, alongside the highly educated nature of the protagonist I felt definite echoes of Dexter; and in the ecclesiastical, gentle, and easygoing nature of the stories I felt reverberations from Chesterton. Runcie’s collection of six short(ish) stories was highly enjoyable, a nice armchair read with a good bit of character development – albeit requiring what Coleridge called a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.
Canon Sidney Chambers works from his (real-life) parish of Grantchester, just south of Cambridge. As if his life was not busy enough, juggling the duties of the priesthood with commitments teaching at the university, Chambers takes on a series of crimes which baffle the police. Friends with local Inspector Geordie Keating, Chambers is used with apparent regularity by the police due to his charm and intelligence in a variety of crimes, from murder to jewellery theft.
Although set in the rural idylls of 1950s England (Et in Arcadia Ego…), the stories make little reference to contemporary events (occasional references to the war are pretty much the limit) and can be imagined with ease. It’s the kind of book that you can imagine reading curled up on a dark winter night by the fireside, gently enjoyable. For the majority of the stories, the most peril that Chambers is in (the actual crimes aside) is not writing his sermon in time. This harks back to the classic detectives, Chesterton’s Father Brown in particular.
Of course, such a pace is not to everyone’s liking, and the stories can occasionally feel on the slow side. The bigger problem from my perspective however is Runcie’s justifications of Chambers’ inclusion in six major local crimes, at least two of which I would have chalked up as incredibly unlikely to occur in the first place. The stories are not particularly realistic in that respect, but I feel that focussing on this would be missing the point – they are highly enjoyable and with likable recurring characters, they are not intended to be forensic reproductions of police procedure.
Coming up to the summer holidays, if you are looking for a book which can be read equally on a dark and stormy summer night or on the beach, look no further. It isn’t perfect, but it is a very nice, engaging read – ★★★½