Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins by James Runcie

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Reviewed by Victoria

Since I last reviewed a volume of Sidney Chambers stories, the first television series of the clerical detective’s cases has aired. This has undoubtedly brought Grantchester and its inmates to a huge new audience, and so I’m sorry to say that I missed the programmes myself. I understand that the actor playing Sidney is a bit of a hunk – but are the programmes any good? Should I go out and get the box set?

Well, in the fourth book, time hastens along and we’re in the Cambridge of the 1960s. Sidney has a new curate to train up, although given Malcolm’s genius for procuring cake from the ladies of the parish, it seems as if he has a thing or two to teach Sidney (which does not make our hero cheerful). Sidney’s baby daughter, Anna, passes through toddlerhood, a precious presence in the lives of Sidney and his musical wife, Hildegard, but also a source of discontent as Hildegard struggles to continue with her career, and the demands on Sidney’s time never relent. And then, Sidney is offered a promotion which he knows he really must take, even though it may put a crimp in his detecting work. We have to ask ourselves: will the title of the series now have to be changed?

There are six stories in this collection, some of which are a bit tighter and more motivated than others. Among the best is a study in domestic abuse, awkwardly uncovered when Sidney and Hildegard go to spend a weekend in the country with a married couple of higher social standing. The ugly burn on their hostess’s neck is apparent to the entire party, but knowing how to deal with the problem is much trickier in an era when other people’s business was less open to intervention, no matter how well-meaning. There’s an emotional depth to this story that resonates. Equally good is the story about Amanda, Sidney’s long-standing friend. The ambiguities in their friendship which hover over the possibility that it could have been more, rise to the surface in this tale, in which Amanda’s plans for marriage are threatened by the poison pen letters she is receiving. Sidney steps in and solves the mystery, as we might expect, but we all have to wonder whether Amanda is making the right move, or whether she has just given in to matrimony after exhausting her resources against it.

I also enjoyed the story about Ely schoolboys who ‘accidentally’ blow up the science lab in the middle of a cricket match. The presence of cricket in a story often calms Runcie down and allows him to be more expansive and detailed. In this case, which revolves around abusive teachers, we also find a good use of the behind-closed-doors culture of the 60s, in which the kinds of crimes that we rail loudly against today were simply accepted as natural hazards.

Less successful, though, is the opening story. It has the punchiest beginning, in which Sidney turns up at his church to find a stranger there, claiming he needs to seek sanctuary on the grounds that he has murdered his wife. There’s a twisty plot involving a chamber music group that will probably come over better on television than in a story. In prose, it feels a bit rushed and random, and there’s a general problem in this collection with lengthy conversations that really don’t bear too much scrutiny via the lens of logic. On the whole, book number four of this series could perhaps have benefitted from a tad more time and care being taken over it. Sidney can be as infuriating to the reader as he is sympathetic, particularly when it comes to the vexed issue of childcare. In the 60s, no husband was expected to pull his weight when it came to nappy changing and so on, children were the domain of the mother. But living in the 21st century with very different standards, it’s hard not to sigh when Sidney fails to listen to his wife one more time and disappears out on a case, claiming duty when we all know it’s inclination. It’s turning Hildegard into a virago who only speaks in capital letters.

But still, the Grantchester series cannot help but work its charm on even the tetchiest reader. Sidney Chambers is a man you take to bed on a wet afternoon for comfort, not a hard-boiled detective with ruthlessness on his side. And in this, he continues to be the cosiest crime solver in the most interesting location on the contemporary scene. More tea, vicar?

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins (Bloomsbury: London, 2015) 978-1632861030, 416pp., hardback.

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