Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death – James Runcie

This book almost made it on to my list of Books I Didn’t Quite Get To in 2012. I was very excited when I read about it pre-publication. I ordered it for the library & reserved it. Then, it arrived & I looked forward to reading it. Then, I read a couple of lukewarm reviews & I dithered. I took it back to the library, borrowed it again, kept it much too long, returned it then finally borrowed it again & told myself sternly to at least read the first chapter & either finish the book or return it for good. So, I sat down last week & read the first chapter – and read on.

Sidney Chambers is a young clergyman living in a Cambridgeshire village. He divides his time between his parish duties & his appointment as a tutor at Corpus Christi, his old college although we see little of him at Cambridge in this book. The stories in The Shadow of Death follow the seasons of nature & the Church from autumn through Advent, Christmas, Lent & summer. The crimes include a murder made to look like suicide, the suspected mercy killing of an old lady, the theft of a Holbein portrait of Anne Boleyn & the murder of a man during a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Sidney becomes involved in these cases reluctantly but once involved, he feels compelled to ask questions & he uses his position as a clergyman to gain the confidence of the people involved. He’s encouraged, if not bullied into investigating by his friend, Inspector Keating & his sister, Jennifer, among others. Sidney is rather an ambivalent man. We don’t get much insight into his real feelings. He seems swept along by events much of the time, doubting his abilities as a clergyman, unable to assert himself with his housekeeper & unsure of his feelings for two women – rich, beautiful Amanda Kendall who would be a disaster as a clergy wife & quietly attractive widow, Hildegard Staunton.

I read The Shadow of Death in a couple of days but didn’t find it completely satisfying. I think that I was put off by the feeling that the author had planned the series (there are going to be six books taking Sidney from the 1950s to the early 1980s) rather cold-bloodedly. He’s chosen all the elements that appeal to readers of cosy English mysteries. A clergyman (reminiscent of Father Brown & the Trollopes – Anthony & Angela) living in a Cambridge village & in Grantchester of all villages with its Rupert Brooke associations. There are numerous references to events & the attributes of austerity Britain in the 50s (the housekeeper’s dreadful food, the Coronation, jazz clubs) that feel rather self-conscious. The crimes are neat, not too violent or if it’s murder, then it takes place off stage. Sidney’s friendship with a policeman gives him the entree, sometimes surprisingly, to various crimes & their regular Thursday evening games of backgammon in the pub are cosily nostalgic of a time when pubs were for playing backgammon or darts & drinking warm beer. He even has a black labrador called Dickens.

This book reminds me of all the reasons why I prefer to read books written in the early to mid 20th century rather than novels written now that are set in an earlier time with their product placement (the housekeeper leaves a note asking for more Vim & Harpic) & mention of current events that would have been taken for granted in a book of the period. The second book in the series, Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night, is to be published in May & I’m not sure if I’ll read it. If I do, it will be because I’ve been seduced again by the gorgeous cover art & maybe because I’m curious to see if Sidney settles into his life & his role as unofficial sleuth.

10 thoughts on “Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death – James Runcie

  1. 'Product placement.' Too funny! I was one of the lukewarms — this book has, on its surface, all of the elements that would appeal to me and it didn't quite reach its potential. But I'm going to look for the next one, at least, to see if that will change.


  2. I really enjoyed it, it was a gentle read I am intrigued as to how he will take the book forward to the 1980s. The covers are lovely and I am sure they will all look good together on the shelf. This was one of his aims when deciding to write a series, he was fascinating to listen to when I met him back in October.


  3. I've read a a number of favourable reviews about this book, and in theory it ticked all right boxes – it was very gentle, the period detail was good, the characters were carefully conceived. I haven't written about it yet, but my response was similar to your's – somehow it never quite came to life, so I doubt I'll read the next book.


  4. Well, just my feeling too. I wanted to enjoy it, and I did, up to a point, but really felt I could have been drawn in more. Somehow, the detection was all too easy.

    I'll probably get the next one from the library, to see if Runcie hits his stride as he proceeds.


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