a field guide to quiet courage

literary inklings

literary inklings

notes from a bohemian library

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie

One of the clerical undertakings that Sidney least enjoyed was the abstinence of Lent. The rejection of alcohol between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday had always been a tradition amongst the clergy of Cambridge but Sidney noticed that it neither improved their spirituality nor their patience. In fact, it made some of them positively murderous.
— James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

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.

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, or what you might be doing: and so, on most Mondays, his designated day off, he would bicycle a few miles out of town, ride out through the village lanes of Trumpington and Shelford, and then take the Roman Road for Wandlebury Ring and the Iron-Age form of the Gog Magog Hills. In such a flat Cambridgeshire landscape Sidney liked the gently sloping elevation of the hills, the prehistoric route ways around him, the sense that he was part of a longer, more distant history, of barrows, vortexes and leylines.
— James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of death

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.

Sidney felt he had to prove himself not only to his parishioners, but also to his rivals. He had to earn his position as Vicar of Grantchester after the fact. This was not always easy, and so he took it upon himself to throw himself into as many situations as possible, doing whatever he could to bring a Christian perspective to everyday events.
— James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

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.

While he loved the concentrated serenity of choral music, and the work of Byrd, Tallis, and Purcell in particular, there were times when he wanted something earthier. And so, on his rare evenings at home, he liked nothing better than to listen to the latest hot sounds from America coming from the wireless. It was the opposite of stillness, prayer and penitence, he thought; full of life, mood and swing, whether it was ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’ by the Ralph Sharon Sextet or the ‘Boogie Woogie Stomp’ of Albert Ammons. Jazz was unpredictable. It could take risks, change mood, announce a theme, develop, change and recapitulate. It was all times in one time, Sidney thought, reworking themes from the past, existing in the present, while creating expectations about any future direction it might take. It was a metaphor of life itself, both transient and profound, pursuing its course with intensity and freedom. Everyone, Sidney was sure, felt the vibe differently, although he was careful not to use a word such as ‘vibe’ when he dined at his College high table.
— James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

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.”)

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