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 is a grim and gritty one, with operatic levels of violence practically obligatory. 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. But even Chandler might be given pause by the spilling viscera of modern crime.

There is, however, a fightback under way. The standard-bearer for the return to the gentler, more innocent era of the much-derided "Cosy" is Alexander McCall Smith. It's not, therefore, surprising to see the creator of Mma Ramotswe namechecked 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.

G K Chesterton's detective 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 thirtyish Anglican hero appears in a variety of adroitly turned mysteries. They include 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 II in 1953 to the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 (which is, apparently, 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's 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.

Order for £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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