Tuesday, July 21, 2015
Between The Pages with "Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins"
I'd say it's about time I did a book review. It has been a summer of heavy reading: I've bulldozed through the Shakespearean tragedies of King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth. I greatly enjoyed Icelandic crime fiction novelist Arnauldur Indriadson's Hypothermia, and presently I am working my way through Dante's Divine Comedy. So the winner of today's book review blog post is...
If you guessed "none of the above", you'd be right.
James Runcie remains one of the great treasures of literary minds today. I stumbled across his Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death three years ago and was taken with how delightfully well-written this gentlemanly clergyman cozy mystery was framed. After cutting my teeth on detective fiction novel after novel, it was a refreshing change of pace to come across a book with a general story arc connected by six loosely threaded short stories with the same core main characters. I have since devoured his following three books in the Grantchester Mysteries, bringing us through this year's edition, Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins. (In fact, if you have avoided Grantchester on PBS to enjoy the spirit of these stories on the small screen, I seriously question your choice of cultural entertainment)
This most recent work is a beauty of a page turner without feeling too quick of a pace. Runcie, the son of former (1980-1991) Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, knows the world of the Church of England clergyman. He portrays Chambers as a gentle, knowledgeable soul with a discernible love of his parishioners, a desire to see the best in others, and an ability to pull secrets out of others when the police can't.
When the series began, Sidney Chambers was 32 and unmarried. Now, having navigated through the undulations of his friendship with Amanda Kendall, marriage to German widow Hildegard Staunton, and tense moments with Inspector Geordie Keating, Sidney is moving through mid-life with wife and daughter and accepts a promotion as Archdeacon of Ely, taking him from the small town of Grantchester where he had served.
Runcie continues his classy and lyrical prose, drawing the reader into the world of Britain's metamorphosis from Elizabeth II's coronation onward. One thing I've greatly enjoyed is how Runcie paints the labors of sleuthing on the canvas of the times. Whereas today is an age when people are all too eager to share everything about themselves through social media--whether it be getting tickets to a ball game or about laughing Coke through their nose at lunch--in Chambers' day, folks were more reserved about divulging private details. Too much openness could be rude. It is an age when homosexuality was still prosecuted and racism was ugly in small towns. Runcie brings these realities to bear in his stories, brushing in (along the way) Sidney's experiences in historical events as the Berlin Wall goes up, C.S. Lewis is laid to rest, and England wins the 1966 World Cup.
In the meantime, Sidney finds time to help investigate the apparent murder of a Russian musician, the domestic abuse of a country hostess, poison pen letters to his friend Amanda, the "accidental" death of a Cambridge musician under the weight of a piano, a blown-up science wing of a school, and the theft of a painting during a Florentine vacation.
The fiction is always gripping, but there is much realism that draws the reader in. Sidney struggles with the obsession of sleuthing that he neglects much of his parish duties, not to mention his family, leading to a confrontation with Hildegard. His foibles and flaws, far from leading to disgust, are drawn for the sake of authenticity. This is a man who struggles with his priorities, who knows he is a priest swimming in a desperate current (sometimes of his own making), but one who desires to be a good man seeking to bring faith and hope to those under his care.
In short, the cozy mystery with the British gentleman detective is back in full force. One could call it "Father Brown meets the changing tides of British culture" but truly Runcie has done more than merely dovetail what has come before. He has created an emerging tradition of humane suspense within the fabric of period mystery and drama, and one that deserves the highest accolades.
And I guarantee it is an effort I will hail again at this time next year when the fifth volume in the Grantchester Mysteries arrives. Thank you, James, in advance.