Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death (2012) by James Runcie

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.

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 3.5/5


  1. I started reading this book sometime back, but gave up after reading the first 2 stories as I found them rather dull and as you mention the mystery element wanting. I have no interest in reading any further book of the series !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I watched and enjoyed the television show but when I tried this it didn’t immediately grab me and so was put off to one side. I may eventually pick it up again but based on your review I am thinking it may take a little longer before I get back to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have this book so I was interested in your take. I am sure I will try it sometime. I have liked clerical mysteries in the past. But I have never tried the Father Brown stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes the Father Brown stories are definitely a different kettle of fish in terms of characters and plot style. Be interesting to see what you make of either of these characters.


  4. I enjoyed these stories more than you. I wasn’t looking for a puzzle plot a la Christie, nor action crime, just the gentle interactions of characters in a time and place, which is what I got. I thought the writing was good, the characters well portrayed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • True, characterisation and writing style are very important to me, but when I read a book within the mystery genre I kind of want it to have a decent mystery element, otherwise it might as well just be a general mainstream novel.


  5. I watched the TV series and was captivated by it. Excellent casting although I read many quibbles about the ridiculously gorgeous actor James Norton who many thought was too good looking for Sidney. Who cares! :^D I thought the chemistry between Norton and Robson Green as the police inspector was the best part of the show. They really worked together well and came across as good friends. Loved the petulant housekeeper and the actress who plays Sidney’s girlfriend too. Uh, the first one, not the German woman who was OK.

    Then I went looking for the stories. As much as I hate to admit it I completely agree with Santosh. Dull, dull, dull. The mysteries in the two stories I read (just like Santosh!) were, if not obvious, completely unoriginal retreads of very familiar themes. The theology inserted into the tales, what little I read, comes off as a combination of prosaic and sanctimonious to me. Clearly not at all my kind of book. But I really did enjoy the TV series.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the review. 😊 Having read one story from the collection, I’m inclined to agree: the setting and characterisation make this an easy, even pleasant read. But I would have liked more substantial detection and puzzle to anchor the story. 🧐

    Liked by 1 person

  7. BTW, I’m excited about the next review. I picked it up after reading your review of “Grim Pickings”, as that was the Rowe novel that was most easily available. I’ve read three of her Verity Birdwood novels to date, and feel quite strongly as to which of the three I think is her best work.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Am interested to see your views and those of some of your commentators! I reviewed this book when it first came out, early days of the blog, and was very disappointed in it. I just looked up my review and I was really harsh about it: ‘He’s no Fr Brown and he gets his poetry wrong’, and I say the author has no feel for the details of the era he is writing about, and ‘the plots are screamingly unlikely AND the solutions incredibly obvious, which is quite an achievement’. Nowadays I would probably tone it down, or not write about it at all. I have seen a fair amount of enthusiasm for the books since then, so it is quite re-assuring that I’m not the only who wasn’t impressed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The not likes definitely seem to be in a majority here so you’re not alone in your criticisms. Though I must say your review sounds like quite an entertaining read, based on your snippets.


  9. I’m late to this party…but I just finished this and my response seems to echo the majority. It just wasn’t the mystery book I was expecting. Far more inner reflection on the moral consequences and what laws (whether man’s or God’s) we can bend/break and it still be okay or even the right thing to do. The book grew on me as I was reading–so I’ll probably give the second one (sitting on the TBR piles right now…) a go just to see if they get better. But if I have a similar reaction, I’ll be quitting the series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I see you have a review up so I have will have to go and take a look. I have very few memories of this one, but none of them made me think this was a series worth persevering with. But if you do find a good one let me know.


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