Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil by James Runcie, book review


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If you're from an ecclesiastical bloodline, is there a temptation to rebel against family traditions? After all, Ingmar Bergman, son of a fiercely devout pastor, made films about the futility of faith in the modern world, while Nietzsche's priestly father provoked the philosopher's pronouncement "God is dead". And so thorough was the rejection of piety in Freud and Voltaire that both even suggested they were foundlings set down in religious families.

With James Runcie's background (son of an Archbishop of Canterbury), one might have thought that when he turned to crime-writing he would opt to defy family shibboleths and write gritty, uncompromising novels about alcoholic coppers in urban Britain. But his continuing series of Grantchester mysteries featuring Canon Sidney Chambers (a linear descendant of Chesterton's Father Brown) would have made for a perfectly relaxing read over a cup of Earl Grey for his famous father (after a hard day at the coal face struggling with gay and women priests).

But if Runcie fils' books are resolutely – even defiantly – old-fashioned, that doesn't mean they are not subtly and insidiously pleasurable (if, that is, you prefer Alexander McCall Smith to Ian Rankin).

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil, the third in the series (of six), is as entertaining as its predecessors. Once again couched in the form of separate novellas, we are accorded both persuasive scene-setting and a rounded picture of church society (Chambers' fellow priests in 1960s Cambridgeshire represent a microcosm of the Church of England itself – from an intense biblical scholar to an effete lay reader in suede shoes who is too evangelical for Sidney's taste). Runcie channels a touch of the vitriol to be found in Anthony Trollope's ecclesiastical novels, and he has created a detailed evocation of the different eras in which the various books are set.

In the 1960s, Sidney and his new German wife live in a city with a notionally sedate surface, but we are reminded that political unrest is at large in the world; on the Home Service, Sidney hears that Soviet ships are warily observing US nuclear testing at Christmas Island. Nevertheless, Britain is still very much the Christian country that David Cameron would like it to be today – although the eponymous "problem of evil" persists.

Sidney, returning from church with his wife, finds a pair of dead doves on their doorstep. He prays for their souls but does nothing – he has bowed to his wife's firm injunction that he takes no more part in the crime-solving activities in the company of his friend, Inspector Keating, that we have seen in earlier books. But then fellow priests begin to be murdered, and Sidney finds he can no longer be hors de combat – he might even be next on the list. The other tales here pose equally pleasurable bafflement for Sidney – and the reader. And there are modern touches too: Chesterton would never have touched repressed homosexuality.

Barry Forshaw's latest book, 'Euro Noir', is published by No Exit Press