First published in 2012, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is the first collection in an ongoing series of mysteries starring the compassionate and engaging Canon Sidney Chambers. Inspired by author James Runcie’s father, Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, the series captures all the charm of religious life in the English country – with a side of mystery as only the British can conjure. As the first page of the book reads, "Canon Sidney Chambers had never intended to become a detective." A quiet but spirited Anglican priest, Sidney enjoys tending to the flock of his congregation in the quaint hamlet of Grantchester in Cambridgeshire. He knows his congregants by name, sees them every day and hears about their troubles in his capacity as a spiritual figure. And yet, when the wife of one of his parishioners comes to him with the suspicion that her husband was murdered, Sidney soon takes on – reluctantly – an entirely new and rather dangerous job: uncovering the truth and finding a murderer, a wolf hiding within his own flock of sheep.
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death includes six interconnected mysteries which read delightfully on their own or altogether as a series of short, thoroughly entertaining tales. The reader is swept up through Runcie’s smart prose into the social and cultural history of Sidney’s world as the Sherlockian clergyman unravels treacherous plots and uncovers murderous deeds. The first and titular story introduces readers to the cast of characters, many of whom return throughout the stories: Inspector George Keating, Sidney’s best friend and confidant; Miss Amanda Kendall, an enchanting friend from Sidney’s youth; fussy but lovable housekeeper Mrs. Maguire; and a mischievous Labrador puppy named Dickens. While murder is the subject of The Shadow of Death, the stories go on to cover various classic crimes: stolen jewels in A Question of Trust, a suspicious death in First, Do No Harm, a murder at a hot jazz club in A Matter of Time, a hunt for a stolen – and priceless – painting in The Last Holbein, and a murder disguised on the stage in the finale story, Honourable Men.
Throughout, Sidney's fortitude and faith are put to the test as he comes to terms with the wickedness of human nature. And yet, Runcie’s utmost goal for Sidney’s adventures is clear: to take readers on a journey of moral introspection to a simpler time, where they might observe the wit and wildness of society in a classically entertaining light.
One of the most pleasant facets of the narrative in these stories, I found, was the examination of Sidney’s moral and spiritual inner-guidance system. Always forthright and never holier-than-thou, Sidney is instantly likable in his determination to see the good in all people, and especially in his enduring sense of hope for humanity – all things that we tend to overlook as worthy enough to be governing traits in characters anymore.
At a time in our culture when we’re followed incessantly by the droning of over-exposure, when our connectivity to social media and the noise of the Internet is the new normal, book lovers often escape to literature as a means of getting away. With his mysteries feeling at once cozily familiar and excitingly brand-new, Runcie offers readers a unique opportunity not only to escape into a quiet book, but to be swept away to a place that epitomizes “unplugged” where, despite the presumed simplicity, adventure certainly awaits. And on that adventure, no better guide is there than the morally stout, down-to-earth Sidney Chambers with his kind heart and easy charm.
It should be noted, Runcie plans to release one book of Sidney Chambers mysteries every year in May, as he has done for the last several years. For anyone who enjoys curling up on the couch with an entertaining and light-hearted mystery, I can’t recommend this series enough. (Runcie also advises – and I second this – that “The nicest way to get a copy is to go into an Independent bookshop and have a lovely time.”)