At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Reading Reflections, April 6th

The mystery novel can take various forms: Mickey Spillane's hardboiled novels; the whodunits of P.D. James; the Golden Age material of Dorothy Sayers; and the cozies of M.C. Beaton. It is the blend of the quieter Golden Age and the cozy that has intrigued me, but few writers are able to seriously blend the two. Part of this has to do with the fact that the Golden Age truly belongs to another era, and to incorporate this classic aura, one must set a realistic story or stories within the context of a bygone age.

And thank God, we have such a treasure trove coming from the pen of James Runcie, who last year introduced the world to The Grantchester Mysteries: Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (Bloomsbury, 2012). Runcie, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and daughters, is well-known in the UK as the artistic director of the Bath Literature Festival and also serves as the Head of Literature and Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre in London. In addition to his writing, he also filmed J.K. Rowling: A Day in the Life, an ITV program that granted unparalleled access to the Harry Potter author. And if you still think, "Of course, I'm sure I've heard his name before"...yes, Runcie's father was Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991 who officiated at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is the first of six volumes planned for this series, which allegedly will culminate at the aforementioned "Wedding of the Century". Yet the initial book takes place during 1953 and 1954, within striking distance of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. The year prior, Sidney Chambers--thirty-two year old bachelor--was appointed vicar of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Mary in the village of Grantchester. Sidney shows a remarkable affinity for cricket, jazz, and regular backgammon games with Inspector Geordie Keating over a couple pints of beer. Yet Sidney will soon discover that the pastoral duties of Word and sacrament can get crowded out when crime invades the spaces of life.

Instead of writing a traditional mystery novel, Runcie sets up his Grantchester Mysteries as volumes of short stories. Each book will contain six loosely connected but distinct mysteries in stories ranging anywhere from 45 to 80 pages. The crimes range in their variety: a solicitor's suicide which looks more and more shady; a jewelry theft in the middle of a dinner party; a suspicious death of a controlling mother-in-law; a disturbing killing of a jazz promoter's daughter; a painting forgery that compromises the safety of a good friend; and the horrific murder of an actor during a local performance of Julius Caesar. While the police are technically involved along the way, Sidney will find he can go to areas of space and areas of the heart where the police cannot tread. Through careful observation and a knack for connecting minutia that others overlook (or pray Sidney does overlook!), the dashing vicar manages to score an accurate assessment time and again.

Runcie has written four novels (including Canvey Island) prior to starting work on The Grantchester Mysteries, but his storytelling takes hold of the reader from the very first introduction to Sidney Chambers. The vicar is a remarkably well-drawn protagonist, a physically attractive specimen whose inner voice and psychological asides offer a solid relief alongside his pastoral exterior. There is enough stock content that fills out his character well: his passion for good beer and fine music, his conscientious desire to be a good minister, his gregarious friends, and a difficult choice of attraction between a devoted female friend and a German widow three years younger than himself.

Although Sidney technically one-ups the police through his efforts, there is no sense he does this out of antagonism, and the police are not made to look incompetent as they are in other novels depicting amateur sleuths. Although Grantchester is the home base, there is much action taking place in Oxford, Cambridge, and London, so the scenery is a fine balance between the traditional village and the more bustling cities. Yes, directions and locations are given with little or no explanation, so readers from outside the United Kingdom might be quizzical about where they are, but this reader never felt "lost." The pace of the stories is well-maintained; one never gets the sense he is on a thriller ride a la The Da Vinci Code or bogging through a Russian novel on Quaaludes. Most endearing is the character of Sidney Chambers himself, who grows on the reader as the book moves along.

Runcie strikes a wonderful balance between the hard reality of crime and the warmth of ecclesiastical and village life. The focus is in the application of order and restoration to life, not on the harshness of the crime itself; the reader is given the option to import that at his leisure. Critical reviews have generally hailed this volume with positive affirmation, and they are correct to do so. It is one of the better works I've read in some time, and thus I recommend it with no hesitation whatsoever. Of course, I would say happily that if you want to digest this volume well, get moving! Runcie's sequel, The Grantchester Mysteries: Sidney Chambers and the Peril of the Night, is set for release on May 21st, also from Bloomsbury. I can already sense another Runcie review coming up in June.

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