Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love | Book Review


Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love is the sixth volume of James Runcie’s “Grantchester Mysteries” featuring the eponymous Anglican cleric—and hopefully the last. I say that as a clergyman who loves mysteries, and what could be better than a mystery featuring a clerical detective? Indeed, I have been a fan of Runcie’s mysteries, beginning with the PBS series, Grantchester, and then coming upon the books.

For me, however, the dissatisfaction began to set in several books back. I have had a difficult time figuring out why I was less and less engaged in the books. It’s not Runcie’s writing, which is beautiful. It’s not the mysteries themselves.  The Persistence of Love includes cases of murder, art forgery, rape, theft, a child that has disappeared, and what the dustjacket describes as a “great loss” to Chambers himself. The series as a whole fits easily into that very English tradition of “drawing room mysteries,” which I enjoy, especially if they’re written by Agatha Christie.

No, the reason I’m less engaged with these books is really two reasons. First, evil just doesn’t seem evil. This may be a problem with drawing room mysteries generally, but it’s especially the case in this series, at least in my opinion. What is missing is sheer horror at the crimes committed. Moreover, these stories take place in the three decades following World War II—a period characterized by Cold War tensions, rapid social change, and the dislocation of mores that inevitably accompanies such change. Runcie simply can’t capture the mood. At one point, Chambers goes looking for his nephew who’s disappeared, and finds him in a café frequented by anarchists where they drink, I kid you not, lemonade. Anarchists and lemonade?!? There’s no better way to smooth over the rough edges of an entire era and mood than by pairing those two things.

Here’s my second reason for disengagement: Sidney Chambers is narcissistic. The narcissism was funny at first, when he was a bachelor priest, but it has become less and less endearing as he marries, fathers a child, and ages. In this novel, he expects Hildegard, his wife, to accept his relationship with his lifelong friend, Amanda, for example, but he gets jealous at Hildegard’s platonic relationship with a fellow musician, Rolfe. I got no sense that exposure shook Chambers out of his hypocrisy, nor did it prompt any change. Instead, we just hear Runcie endlessly processing these issues in Chambers’ mind. The narcissistic hypocrisy and the endless ruminations (and occasional recriminations) have gotten old. At least for me.

I’ve read somewhere that this is the last Grantchester mystery that will be published. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know that the book ends with two questions: Will Chambers accept an ecclesiastical promotion? And will he give up his sideline as a detective? As a fan of series novels, part of me wants to know. The other part just doesn’t care. If a seventh novel is published, it will be interesting to see whether the curiosity of the former part overcomes the apathy of the latter.

 

Book Reviewed:
James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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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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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.