The Grantchester Mysteries: Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death – James Runcie

If you’ve been avoiding crime fiction in fear of more serial killer gore offerings, it’s time to take a detour for Grantchester’s gentle-but-knowing Canon Sidney Chambers has arrived.  The Shadow of Death is the first in a promised series of six novels starting in 1953, the year of the Queen’s Coronation, and closing in 1981, the year of the wedding of Charles and Diana.

We first meet Sidney as a thirty two year old bachelor – a man more mature than his years, due not only to his introspective nature and vocation, but also to his experiences in the war.  His move into sleuthdom is sudden, but he then finds himself cajoled and sometimes almost bullied by those around him into providing his most able assistance.

Structured as six chronological short stories, Sidney’s cases include the suspect suicide of a Cambridge solicitor; a jewellery theft; a dubious assisted death; a suspicious death in a jazz nightclub; an art forgery; and a first night real death on stage for Julius Caesar at an amateur modern-dress production.  Yes, the shadow of death is never far away from Sidney.

The beauty of this novel lies not only in Sidney’s charming character but also in the cast of characters around him.  Undoubtedly, comparisons will be made to Agatha Christie for style, and to G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown series, but this is also reminiscent of James Herriot for that gathering of memorable cast.

We have Inspector Geordie Keating with whom Sidney shares a weekly beer and backgammon session at the local bar, as well as the ensuing investigations – ‘You must know we need more to go on than this.  Jesus didn’t settle for one or two miracles, did he?  He went on until people believed there was proof.’

Then there is the redoubtable and efficient housekeeper, Mrs Maguire, who believes the lavatory should never have been brought indoors – ‘unhygienic’ – and whose vacuuming can send messages where words fail.

Sidney is regarded by his parents ‘with an air of amused perplexity’ for ‘they couldn’t seem to understand how they could have produced a child who had become a priest’.  In return, Sidney will say grace at the dinner table to ‘keep the family up to his standards’ where ‘his father had been positively agnostic of late’.

Via his sister Jennifer, Sidney develops a solid friendship with the curator of sixteenth century paintings, Amanda Kendall.  Could romantic love develop?  Even with one of Sidney’s cases putting Amanda at peril?

Resolutely evocative of its period, this first Grantchester Mystery brilliantly reflects the social history of the 1950s and provides beautifully written crime fiction of the lighter variety.

As we might expect from the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, Sidney is a well drawn character giving us sensitive insight to the mind of an earnest and thoughtful young vicar.  The Shadow of Death is a delightful read and will leave you eagerly awaiting the next in the series.

This review first appeared in the Catholic Herald (print edition) on 18 May 2012.

The hardback edition and ebook are available now.