Set in Cambridge, Runcie’s novel combines elegant prose, a sense of history, and beautifully drawn characters to make this gently wistful detective novel an absolute delight.
While not by definition a cozy mystery, Runcie’s tale often left me hungry for more. Canon Sidney Chambers has received rapid promotion in the Church of England to become vicar of Grantchester. A good and capable man, Sidney is also an insecure romantic. Striving for perfection in his personal and his professional life, Sidney feels as though he always comes up a little bit short.
Sidney is a lover of warm beer and hot jazz; he’s a keen cricketer and an avid reader; and he’s known throughout the village for his understated clerical elegance. He loves a tipple with his best mate, Inspector George Keating, whom he meets at their favorite table in the RAF bar of The Eagle. The two enjoy a couple of pints, playing a game of backgammon and sharing confidences. While George faces the demands of the job, three children at home, and a wife who keeps tight control of the family finances, Sidney has slightly
fewer commitments--apart from the need to prove himself, not only to his parishioners, but also to his rivals.
The first case in The Shadow of Death brings Sidney into contact with Pamela Morton. Pamela was having an affair with Stephen Staunton, a well-known Grantchester solicitor. Stephen was thought to have committed suicide, but Pamela is convinced that he was murdered; she can’t believe that Stephen committed what many people believed is “a sin.” Inspector Keating believes the man killed himself and warns Sidney not to stir up any animosity among the local families. Sent on his way, Sidney decides to visit the home of Stephen’s unhappy wife, Hildegard Staunton,
a German refugee. Sidney’s conversation with Hildegard is as unsettling as is his obvious attraction to her. As the two discuss the nature of death, the idea of marriage, and the problems of betrayal, Hildegard reveals she was well-aware of her husband‘s philandering ways: “Everyone loved my husband, he was a charming man."
The other mysteries in the novel do not so easily fall into stereotypes. There’s a lost or stolen ring at a party hosted by art historian and wealthy socialite Amanda Kendall, whom Sidney is also attracted to.
An elderly lady is convinced that her future son-in-law is trying to kill her. There’s also a story of tangled loves in which homosexuality, jealousy, and the intense love of fathers for their children provide yet another opportunity for Sidney to become romantically entangled with Amanda.
In one story, Sidney and Keating visit a jazz club in London where the famous Gloria Dee is singing. A young woman is found murdered, and the girl’s brother is the boyfriend of Sidney's sister, Jennifer.
As the tale moves through each mystery, Sidney's personal life becomes evermore complicated as he learns to think less of everybody, suspect his or her motives, and trust no one. I just watched the entire televised first series starring James Norton as Sidney and Robeson Green as George Keating, and I was amazed how cleverly how the producers have recreated Runcie’s
ecclesiastical world of the 1950s and how they show how furiously Sidney works to uncover past misdeeds and remove the onus of murder from his colorful friends and neighbors.
Sidney may be burdened by years of accumulated grief from his time in the war, and he may not be the dashing, ideal hero, but he’s tenderhearted and thoughtful, riddled with personal complexities. Sidney
wants to believe that his motives are indeed born out of a desire to understand what happens, and to stand alongside people of Grantchester in their difficulties. While Sidney continues to pine for lovely Amanda, he often wishes he could be a better priest.
While he faces the harsh realization that he can not be “all things to all men,” Keating tells him that “we can’t always behave in a Christian way.”
Grantchester may be an insular village rife with rumor and gossip, yet it’s also a bucolic and colorful paradise, sometimes tinged with greed, betrayal and murder, the perfect setting for this fierce duo of a police detective and vicar bound together by gender, loyalty, leadership, and everlasting friendship.