Review of ‘Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins’ by James Runcie

Sidney-Chambers-and-the-Forgiveness-of-SinsJames Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

I am an ordained minister with a penchant for reading mystery novels. It is not entirely surprising, then, that I so thoroughly enjoy The Grantchester Mysteries, which narrate the exploits of Sidney Chambers, a priest in the Church of England and an amateur sleuth. Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins is the fourth installment in James Runcie’s series, and in my opinion, the best. (All of them are good, however.)

Set in Grantchester, a village near Cambridge, The Grantchester Mysteries begin in the early 1950s, with Chambers as an unmarried priest. Forgiveness of Sins is set in the mid-1960s, and Chambers has married and fathered a young daughter. In addition to telling Chambers’ story, the novels chart the tremendous social changes taking place in England in the Cold War period.

As for the mysteries themselves, Forgiveness of Sins includes a man who thinks he has murdered his wife (but hasn’t), a physically abusive aristocrat who comes to a bad end, a Cambridge professor killed (accidentally?) by a falling piano, an engaged friend receiving death threats unless she calls off the wedding, an explosion at a public school’s chemistry lab that reveals the school’s dirty secrets, and an art theft in which Chambers finds himself the accused.

The Grantchester Mysteries are gracefully written, character studies, not police procedurals. They are, as the series’ website puts it, “moral fables in the tradition of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mixing crime, comedy and social history.” Although a crime is solved in each story, the emphasis is less on the how than the who. In other words, there is a focus on the moral character of the antagonists rather than on the methodology of their crimes. If you like hard-boiled detective stories, in other words, The Grantchester Mysteries are not for you. (They also deviate significantly from Grantchester, the Masterpiece Mystery series on PBS that was inspired by them.)

Personally, I am ecumenical in my taste for mystery. I like character studies and police procedurals—Sidney Chambers and Harry Bosch. Each of those detectives, and the series written about them, are worth reading, even though they are entirely different ways of writing about crime.

As I said, I think each installment in The Grantchester Mysteries is good, but Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins is the best one yet. If you want to read it for yourself, however, don’t start with it. Start with the first book of the series, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. Then you can trace the arc of character development and understand why the characters relate to one another as they do.


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