Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, By James Runcie


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The Independent Culture

There is a bloody battle afoot in the world of crime fiction. Few would deny that the status quo in the fictional worlds of murder and detection these days is a grim and gritty one, with operatic levels of violence practically obligatory. And this isn't just the male practitioners of the genre; many female writers now cheerfully out-Herod Herod when it comes to upping the body count.

Raymond Chandler famously poured scorn on the genteel, crossword-puzzle-like diversions of the British Golden Age, preferring the tougher world of his contemporary Dashiell Hammett, where murder was committed for a reason, 'not just to provide a corpse'. But even Chandler might be given pause by the spilling viscera of modern crime fiction.

There is, however, a fightback under way - although those taking a stand against the new violence may object to the word ‘fight’. The standard-bearer for the return to a gentler, more innocent era (that of the much derided ‘Cosy’) is Alexander McCall Smith, who takes the reader to a Botswana not a million miles from Agatha Christie's St Mary Mead (McCall Smith has objected to violence, 'bad language' and sex in modern crime fiction). It's not, therefore, surprising to see the creator of Mma Ramotswe name checked on the jacket of James Runcie's Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, which is very much an evocation of a more genteel era.

GK Chesterton's Father Brown is also referenced - hardly surprising, given that Runcie's hero is the Vicar of Grantchester, a bachelor with a gentle manner given to solving none-too-upsetting crimes. The structure here is a collection of short stories set in a classic English village in the 1950s, and the Anglican hero appears in a variety of adroitly turned mysteries, including the suicide of a local solicitor and the theft of a ring at a London dinner party.

Chambers turns out to be a winning clergyman-sleuth, and Runcie’s literary authority is repeatedly demonstrated in the construction of his elegant tales. In fact, it is the plotting that really distinguishes this collection, and will make many readers more than ready to follow the God-fearing hero from the coronation of Elizabeth in 1953 to the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 (which is, apparently, to be the setting of the final book in the series). Of course, if you are a reader who prefers red meat in your crime fiction, Sidney Chambers’ exploits may be a touch bland for your taste. But Runcie is on the mark regarding his hero’s clerical accoutrements (the author’s name is a clue to his family connections), and there is no denying the winning charm of these artfully fashioned mysteries.