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Clerical round and not so common task

01 May 2012

This novel about a detective-cleric makes entertaining reading, says Peggy Woodford

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (The Grantchester Mysteries)
James Runcie

Bloomsbury £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

“ONE of the advantages of being a clergyman, Sidney decided, was that you could disappear. Between services no one quite knew where you were, who you might be visiting, what you might be doing.”

James Runcie has used this advantage to good effect in his novel, the first in a series about the detective adventures of Canon Sidney Chambers. He is a 32-year-old bachelor, tall, dark, attractive without being aware of it, with a great fondness for jazz and warm beer; the date is 1953, action in the Second World War is still a fresh memory (Sidney was awarded the Military Cross), and rationing has just ended.

Sidney is Vicar of Grantchester near Cambridge, and has just taken the funeral of a well-known local solicitor when he is told, in con­fidence, that the cause of death wasn’t suicide as is widely believed by all, including the deceased’s very attractive German widow, but is murder. He realises that he must do something about it. . .

This is the first of several crimes Sidney inadvertently finds himself drawn into trying to solve, each of them arising out of his daily life and work, and thus rubbing in the fact that a clergy-man is never off duty. The shock of a valuable ring’s disappearing in front of his and other guests’ eyes at a dinner party; the sudden collapse of a star of the jazz world while Sidney was actually in the Soho club; the near-murder of a close friend while she was in pursuit of a possible lost Holbein; the actual murder of an actor during a performance of Julius Caesar — these events come so thick and fast that Sidney fears his parish work will suffer. (He acquires a curate in the nick of time.)

Runcie’s formal, slow-moving, slightly stilted style fits the 1950s setting well, and is important in the overall effect of this beguiling novel. It is full of witty phrases to delight the reader: “unpleasantly practical sandals”; “being a vicar was a bit like being the managing director of a business in which no one was paid.”

But we are also occasionally brought up short: it is a real jolt when a character comments that two homosexuals could both hang if they were discovered, until we remember that hanging continued until 1964, and that it wasn’t until 1967 that the first Act decrim­inalising homosexual practices was passed.

This entertaining first volume about Canon Chambers will have Runcie’s readers longing for the next.

Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

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