This second installment of Runcie’s Grantchester mystery series begins on a snowy winter's night
in January 1955. An external blackness coats the somber country, but Canon Sidney Chambers feels no fear as he listens to the distant sound of the Corpus Christie College in Cambridge. An
this evening for “drawn curtains, hot toddies and warm fires,” Sidney has decided to enjoy a couple of pints at the Eagle with his good friend Inspector Georgie Keating, while still enjoying his new performance as an amateur police detective, albeit
one with a haunted past.
Determined to investigate one baffling and saddening mystery after another, Sidney finds himself witnessing the “pinnaclomania” the need for young men to ascend to one of the four octagonal turrets of Kings College Chapel, undergraduates who risk their future university careers in the name of freedom and adventure. Tragedy occurs when head climber Dr Valentine Lyall falls to his death.
The event plummets Sidney, Keating, and Giles Tremlett, the Master of Corpus (all “manners and exactitude”), into an investigation. Lyall’s favorite student, Rory Montague, proves to unhelpfully evasive. Another student, Kit Bartlett--rumored to be spying for the Soviets--has mysteriously disappeared.
Was this a relatively innocent escapade, or did one or more of the men have sinister motives?
Keating tells an ever-persistent Sidney that he needs to be very careful in Cambridge. The university is fertile recruiting ground, and the use of the “spy” word can lead to unsavory speculation. Frankly, Sidney would prefer to stay at home and concentrate on his next sermon. Still, there’s a sense that Lyall’s death is the beginning of something more sinister, something that neither Lyall nor Sidney could predict or plan for. Last thing Sidney wants
is another tortuous enquiry; he’s only just returned from a short holiday in Berlin with his friend Hildegard Staunton. While it was a relief to get away from both his clerical duties and his criminal investigations, Sidney realizes that he misses Hildegard far more than he had anticipated. He wishes she were with him, a wish that proves to be quite fortuitous in the last story when Sidney finds himself traveling deep into the scarred landscape
of East Germany.
Runcie’s elegant, low-key writing style is important in the context of Sidney’s own battles. Sidney
is often conflicted by the notion that he would make an unsatisfactory husband.
He can listen to the darkest fears of his parishioners and comfort them in their hours of anxiety, but
he's not sure he could change a fuse. He ruminates a lot on the nature of death while praying quietly with Leonard, his young (closeted) curate. Both are fascinated over the courage and recklessness of men and how an act of murder can be driven by such overwhelming desire. It’s a little simpler for George Keating, who tells Sidney that “you have to know what makes people tick, you have to understand the human character; can’t get all the answers out of books.”
Ever since his ordination to the priesthood, Sydney had resigned himself to the idea of celibacy. He could no more imagine a life shared with Hildegard, his beloved German widow, than he could with his dazzling art historian friend, Amanda Kendall. A sensitive individual, Sidney is all too aware of his personal failings, fond of whisky and women although not besotted by either.
He solves his cases, as he calls them, by using his personal charm and his persona as a priest to encourage people to say things to him that they would hesitate to say to others.
In the second story, Sidney uses the personal touch to solve a suspicious fire in the studio of photographer Daniel Morden, which in turn throws him into the orbit of Abigail Redmond, who wants to escape to London to become a top model. When Hildegard visits, she and Sidney become the chief sleuths in the murder of Cambridge’s Dr. Cade, who appears to have drowned in the bath. Hildegard has a logical mind and clear way of thinking; her skills are a perfect accent to Sidney, who feels it's his duty once again to involve himself in yet another death.
This novel, in particular, has a subtle melancholy and a bittersweet tone, but there's also great compassion and sadness, especially when Sidney ponders on giving up all pretence at becoming a detective. As the stories herein are all revealed in time, Sidney himself is often caught between darkness and light and the paradox of faith, “which is to sometimes embrace the darkness in order to find the light.” The sleepy town of Grantchester continues to be inhabited by murder and mystery, the villagers trusting of a priest who continues to serves them though a special kind of unconditional love.
Sidney works free himself of his troubled love life and at finally settling his off-and-on-again relationship with Hildegard. There are more sinister events, accusations of racism, and a surprising connection between Amanda and Hildegard once Hildegard arrives back in England. A thoughtful and somewhat understated hero to the last, the real attraction of Sidney Chambers is that he gets to his solutions through his understanding of human nature and by quiet questioning of witnesses and suspects.