I have been aware of The Grantchester series for a while but never tried it until now. I enjoyed G K Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, so was interested try some more priest based sleuthing. I think this particular type of sleuth is a rather special one, in that the sleuth’s original profession aids their detective work but also conflicts with it as well. It’s an interesting tension and I think Runcie captures it well in the short stories found in this collection. I don’t think the Chesterton parallel should be over used though in conjunction with this series, as Runcie definitely does his own thing. Sidney Chambers is not really like Father Brown. Chambers blends in more with society and is more vulnerable/affected by temptation. The six stories in this collection take place over a year; 1953-4, often tying in with highlights of the Church calendar.
Chamber’s first case in ‘The Shadow of Death’ comes about after the funeral of a solicitor called Stephen Staunton. He is supposed to have committed suicide but his lover believes otherwise. We are also introduced to Chamber’s friend, Inspector George Keating, a useful friend to have when you are about to become an amateur sleuth. The second story, ‘A Question of Trust,’ concerns the theft of an expensive engagement ring which takes place at a New Year’s Eve dinner party, which Chambers and his sister are attending. The curate which comes to work and live with Chambers also first crops up in this tale. Chamber’s next case in ‘First Do No Harm,’ looks at whether a local doctor is quickening the death of some of his more elderly and frail patients and in some ways this is not much of a mystery story, but an ambiguous tale over morality and how to deal with criminality. The murder of a jazz club owner’s daughter is the focus of the next story in the collection, ‘A Matter of Time,’ whilst in ‘The Lost Holbein,’ we have a thriller-ish adventure involving art fraud. The collection closes with the story, ‘Honourable Men,’ in which a murder occurs on stage during a production of Julius Caesar.
Whilst Runcie has a very engaging and delightful prose style, which portrays the time period and characters well, I am afraid I found the mystery element somewhat wanting. Culprits are often obvious, though how Chambers uncovers their guilt is somewhat tenuous. In fairness I think the stories are less about how the crimes are solved and more about how they affect Chambers and those involved. As I said earlier I think Runcie depicts the growing tension within Chambers really well, as he has to re-evaluate how his detective work fits in with, clashes against and redefines his priestly role. Given how great a character Chambers is, it is disappointing that his investigations lack mystification and rely a little too much on epiphanies. It does leave me wondering whether later books in the series have stronger mysteries within them or whether they stay the same as this collection.