Runcie’s latest novel set in the set in the town of Grantchester, Cambridge, has his beloved vicar somewhat tempered by age. Building upon his complex relationships with his friends, The Dangers of Temptation has Sidney appointed to Archdeacon of Ely. Married to his beloved Hildegard, Sidney is also busy raising his four-year-old daughter, Anna. He still loves his jazz and his beloved Labrador; Dickens has been replaced by Byron; his housekeeper, Mrs. Maguire has quietly retired; and Leonard is pondering whether to become a bishop. Sidney still turns to Georgie Keating for company. Deeply in love with his wife, Cathy, Georgie has become a grandfather,
still sometimes chuffing at the fact that his adult children still live at home.
In this outing, Runcie focuses on several “sins.” Sidney’s investigative skills are piqued when he’s visited by beautiful Barbara Wilkinson, who wants him to rescue her
18-year-old son, Danny, from a commune recently established on a farm outside of Grantchester. Run by Fraser Pascoe, a new-age self-awareness guru, Barbara is of the opinion that the commune, The Family of Love, is a cult that Danny joined of his own freewill. When the decapitated body of Pascoe is discovered in a field between the farm and the church, Inspector Keating singles Barbara Wilkinson out as the prime suspect.
From here the novel segues outward into an exploration of the power of hatred and the nature of revenge. Pascoe’s violent death is balanced against the second story--that of Helena Randall’s missing necklace, unceremoniously lost by her daughter, Olivia--but not before Olivia’s boyfriend, Richard Lane,
is nearly killed by a herd of stampeding cows. The return of Mrs. Maguire’s husband, Ronnie, makes up the third story. After assuming he was killed in the war, Mrs. Maguire is flummoxed when Ronnie walks back into her life and “wants to make good on the mistakes of his past.”
While James Norton plays Sidney beautifully in the ITV/PBS series (which I think stands on its own and offers much more intensity and drama than the books), the charm of Runcie’s Grantchester mysteries
lies in the poignant character of Sidney Chambers himself, a handsome vicar with definite opinions on how to conduct an investigation, whether it’s murder, blackmail, or stolen property. Part of Sidney’s attraction is that he can deftly intrude into the lives of those suspected of nefarious deeds, carefully interviewing them without making them feel threatened. His caring and moral nature
and his loyalty to all his friends--Georgie, Amanda, Leonard, and Mrs. Maguire--add strength and texture to his different adventures.
Sidney loves Hildegard deeply, yet it is always to Amanda that Sidney feels drawn. Early on in their relationship, Sidney makes a promise with Amanda to always be friends. Damaged and unhappy in her own marriage, Amanda can’t see a way through the future when she confesses to Sidney that: “so many things mount up in front of you that you don’t know where you are anymore.”
As Amanda turns to Sidney for comfort, he’s forced to recognize that his wife has her own issues: “I feel like a stranger in both places: too German for England and now too English for Germany.”
Both charming and serious, The Dangers of Temptation examines many of society's dilemmas during the late 1960s, including the decriminalization of homosexuality, the influence of the Soviet Union (both Sidney and Hildegard travel to East Germany to visit her mother), the changing class system, and the Church of England’s attitude to “modern morality”
as it tries to find the right level of informed tolerance over matters such as sex before marriage and divorce. Being gay and closeted becomes an issue for Leonard when he falls in love with handsome Simon Hackford. Predictably, Leonard finds himself marginalized by the church’s view that the love of another man is something that can be “cured” and that such feelings are “temptations that should be resisted.” As Sidney ruminates on the mysteries of love--however odd it may seem to some--he’s able to show Leonard (and us) that while tenderness can often be pale and imperfect, it can also sometimes be a distorted reflection of the love of God.
Grantchester, beautifully situated on the River Cam, might be gorgeous, but like anywhere else, it is full of heartache and private regrets. Through Sidney’s eyes, Runcie embraces these sorrows as well as the power of faith, friendship, and the loyal connections that are passed down through the delicate passage of time.