Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death - James Runcie
Sidney Chambers is a young clergyman living in a Cambridgeshire village. He divides his time between his parish duties & his appointment as a tutor at Corpus Christi, his old college although we see little of him at Cambridge in this book. The stories in The Shadow of Death follow the seasons of nature & the Church from autumn through Advent, Christmas, Lent & summer. The crimes include a murder made to look like suicide, the suspected mercy killing of an old lady, the theft of a Holbein portrait of Anne Boleyn & the murder of a man during a performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Sidney becomes involved in these cases reluctantly but once involved, he feels compelled to ask questions & he uses his position as a clergyman to gain the confidence of the people involved. He's encouraged, if not bullied into investigating by his friend, Inspector Keating & his sister, Jennifer, among others. Sidney is rather an ambivalent man. We don't get much insight into his real feelings. He seems swept along by events much of the time, doubting his abilities as a clergyman, unable to assert himself with his housekeeper & unsure of his feelings for two women - rich, beautiful Amanda Kendall who would be a disaster as a clergy wife & quietly attractive widow, Hildegard Staunton.
I read The Shadow of Death in a couple of days but didn't find it completely satisfying. I think that I was put off by the feeling that the author had planned the series (there are going to be six books taking Sidney from the 1950s to the early 1980s) rather cold-bloodedly. He's chosen all the elements that appeal to readers of cosy English mysteries. A clergyman (reminiscent of Father Brown & the Trollopes - Anthony & Angela) living in a Cambridge village & in Grantchester of all villages with its Rupert Brooke associations. There are numerous references to events & the attributes of austerity Britain in the 50s (the housekeeper's dreadful food, the Coronation, jazz clubs) that feel rather self-conscious. The crimes are neat, not too violent or if it's murder, then it takes place off stage. Sidney's friendship with a policeman gives him the entree, sometimes surprisingly, to various crimes & their regular Thursday evening games of backgammon in the pub are cosily nostalgic of a time when pubs were for playing backgammon or darts & drinking warm beer. He even has a black labrador called Dickens.