Reviewed by Victoria Best
Readers of this delightful series are probably aware that the ITV adaptation will soon be on our screens, with James Norton playing the priest-turned-detective, Sidney Chambers and Robson Green as his police inspector friend, Geordie Keating. It may be no coincidence that by the time we reach the third book in this six-book series, there is a strong televisual feel to the stories, and the experience is oddly akin to sitting down on a quiet weekday evening with something entertaining and undemanding to watch.
For those who have never read him before, Sidney Chambers is an Anglican vicar who lives in Grantchester with his labrador, Dickens, his curate, sharp-witted Leonard Finch and an indomitable housekeeper. As well as having the parish of Grantchester in his care, Sidney is also dean at Corpus Christi College in nearby Cambridge, which you might think would be enough to keep him busy. However, over games of backgammon and pints in The Eagle pub on Thursday nights, Sidney often finds himself drawn into the crimes his friend Geordie Keating is investigating, and more often than not, Geordie wants Sidney with his human touch and consoling air to lull suspects into a false sense of security. Sidney sees this a little differently: ‘As a priest, isn’t everything our business? There’s no part of the human heart which is not our responsibility.’ Having landed himself in hot water with the church authorities on several occasions over his perceived neglect of his clerical duties, even Sidney is having to admit that he is as fascinated by the detection of crime as he is by pastoral care.
Up until this point in the series, Sidney has been torn between two very different women; his long-standing friend, art historian and social beauty, Amanda Kendall, and a German widow whose husband’s death became the first case he investigated, Hildegard Staunton. At the end of the second book (look away now if you don’t want spoilers) he married Hildegard, and the third, set in the 1960s, sees the dust settling around their marriage and its minor repercussions. Sidney is a cerebral man, as befits a donnish vicar, and never quite comes across as a serious love interest, but James Runcie does a nice job of showing his deep and tender commitment to Hildegard, overwhelmed still by his good fortune in having found her.
There are four mysteries in The Problem of Evil, rather than the usual six, but there’s still a nice variety of situations. The first is darker than usual, featuring a serial killer with a grudge against men of the cloth who leaves dead birds as his calling card, the second about the disappearance of a work of art in the Fitzwilliam, following a distracting strip tease by a young French woman. Sidney then becomes an (implausible) actor for a film version of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors and witnesses an on-set drowning that may or may not be accidental, and finally, a baby goes missing from the maternity hospital in the run-up to Christmas. The mystery is scarcely the point of these stories, though it provides the thread that links the more significant elements of Runcie’s fictional world together. Sidney Chambers is a mix of Chesterton’s Father Brown and Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe, with Miss Read as godmother at the christening. What matters is the community life that Sidney engages in, beautifully encapsulated by the period setting, and an ongoing study of human nature that is partly anthropological and mostly religious. Very few works of fiction concern themselves with religion these days, but whilst Runcie’s stories wear their learning lightly, Sidney’s genuine and often fretful ruminations about Christian ethics are not afraid to dig deep into theological issues. Not that he comes to many startling conclusions. But you get the feeling that asking the questions is what really counts.
Sidney Chambers would probably feel like cozy crime at its coziest if it weren’t for the religious dimension, and despite having more pages than usual, there is still the occasional rushed denouement or hasty piece of deduction. As with all detective heroes, Sidney is moving a little too close to omnipotence as this collection finds him coming to unsubtantiated conclusions – right ones, unfailingly – without breaking a sweat. But he worries about everything else, and this brings him a warm and delightful touch of humanity. This is a quiet, thoughtful and often very satisfying series told with great attention to detail and much compassion. As comfortable and comforting as the hot drink Sidney makes for his new wife every night. I’ll be interested to see how it translates to the small screen, but even keener to get my hands on the next in the series.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil (Bloomsbury, May 2014) 978-1408850992, 304 pages, hardback.