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Canon’s nose for immorality

21 June 2013

Characters, Alexander Lucie-Smith says, may not be all they seem


Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night (The Grantchester Mysteries)
James Runcie
Bloomsbury £14.99
Church Times Bookshop special offer £12.99 (Use code CT426 )

JAMES RUNCIE's new novel is the second in his Grantchester Mysteries, a series centred on the figure of Canon Sidney Chambers, Vicar of Grantchester. It consists of six stories, an arrangement that works well, in that the detective genre fits the short story better than it does the full-length novel.

The tales are linked by the characters of the Canon and his policeman-friend Inspector Keating, and the thread of the Canon's romantic uncertainty: will he choose the society beauty Amanda, or the Bach-loving German widow Hildegard?

The Canon is a sympathetic character, accompanied by a winsome labrador. The setting represents an excellent choice, and the opening story deals with an accident on the roof of King's College Chapel. Or at least it seems to be an accident. But in this world nothing is what it seems. In the last story, some of the themes of the first are revisited, and, once more, nothing is as it should be. The Cold War is at its height. Cambridge is full of spies. Is the Master of Chambers's college one of them? Can there be such a thing as a quadruple agent? There are no easy answers, but the raising of such questions is enjoyable.

The slipperiness of reality is further explored in the romantic attachments of the Canon's parishioners. Men are not what they seem, as a case of bigamy shows, and a case of arson, too. Worst of all, people can kill for love or, more exactly, kill to stop love. The Canon's stock in trade is not solving simple whodunits, but, rather, seeing through human fraudulence in all its manifestations. His investigations are moral as well as practical, and what leads him to the truth is often a hunch or, rather, a good nose for immorality.

There are several inaccuracies with regard to the period, and historical details that should be corrected for a further edition; space forbids my mentioning these in detail. But the Canon's adventures make entertaining and improving reading, reminding us that we like detective fiction, because we all believe in justice, and love to see it done.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007)

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