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Crimes in the Honest to God era

11 July 2014

Peggy Woodford on four tales of clerical sleuthing come of age

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil (The Grantchester Mysteries)
James Runcie
Bloomsbury £14.99
CT Bookshop Special Offer £12.99 (Use code CT954 )

JAMES RUNCIE's four new stories about Canon Sidney Chambers, amiable if eccentric part-time sleuth, is the third book of six in the Grantchester Mysteries series spanning the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Chambers is ideal for this period: he fought in the Second World War; he worked his way up the clerical ladder in the '50s; it is now 1963, and he is newly married to his beloved German wife, Hildegard.

"The Problem of Evil" is the most sinister of the stories, dealing with a series of murders of priests. I was jarred by a slight mismatch of tone between the horrors of the actual killings and their motive: would a man with a grievance against the clergy really take it so far? But maybe that's the inevitable balance needed between horror and banality: Chambers discusses favourite biscuits, demonic possession, animal sacrifice, and murder, in a long conversation leading to the discovery of the murderer.

"Female, Nude" has a dramatic beginning in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Chambers is enjoying the pictures when a beautiful girl wanders by singing a French song with the haunting refrain "Oh gai! Vive la rose!". Her coat is over her arm, revealing that she is completely naked, and, during this unusual distraction, a picture is stolen. Runcie gives us a delicious picture of London's art scene in the Swinging Sixties before Chambers's search for the missing picture takes him to Dieppe, so changed since his own terrible landing at Juno Beach nearly 20 years before.

The dialogue in "Death by Water" shows more of Runcie's unerring ear: a film crew have arrived in Grantchester to film a Dorothy Sayers novel, and Chambers's conversation with the leading (middle-aged) actress made me laugh out loud. The story itself is rather contrived, and less successful than Runcie's perfect evocation of location chaos.

The final and shortest story of the collection, "Christmas, 1963", is fittingly about birth: the theft and return of a newborn baby. Chambers becomes a father himself.

Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

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