SIDNEY CHAMBERS & THE SHADOW OF DEATH by James Runcie

I want to start by putting this book into context. It is not a Stephen King or a Hilary Mantel. Each genre must be considered on its own merits, and this is neither a horror story, nor a piece of fictionalised history.

For many years the murder mystery was written in a certain detached way, called ‘third person Omniscient’, in which the story-teller was outside the plot. Agatha Christie for Poirot and Miss Marple are probably the best known examples of this genre, which you might even term a Cluedo after the party game. Some writers however, got closer to the reader, by making the author also a character in the story – such as Conan Doyle did for Watson in the Sherlock Holmes books. Generally speaking in these mysteries the hero or heroine was the Deus or Dea ex machina. They solved the mysteries single-handed. With one or two exceptions, you could put your trust in them and know they would survive. So, it’s all about clues and solving mysteries with relatively little characterisation or emotion.

In the thirties came the hard-boiled American ‘tec with its sharper dialogue and faultier, more realistic characters. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and so on. There were still writers who preferred a slightly less gritty approach, such as Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout, and nowadays the genre has developed further, so that you can now also have Realism, with Laurence Block producing anti-heroes who are sympathetic, and police procedurals by, for instance, the Kellermans and Colin Dexter.

The original type of mystery survives, from writers such as Ruth Rendell and Robert Barnard. You might call these Cluedo Grown Up because the characterisations have become more prominent – or equally as important as the action. The prime exponent is probably Dick Francis, and it is probably through him that the Cluedo murder mystery took on another dimension which has came to define this genre – and that is that the background of the main character must be as interesting as the murder. These stories became classified and slightly looked down upon as . . . Cozies.

Responding to market forces some twenty years ago, the detective novel split again. Shock-horror and mystery/thriller was born and rampaged through the best seller lists in paperback form – though rarely in hardback. Writers were encouraged by their publishers to include more overt sex and definitely more horror in an effort to increase sales of a certain type – which it certainly did. Airport sales of paperbacks multiplied. Stephen King dived into the genre, as did James Patterson, Minette Walters, Val McDermid.

And then came the Nordic block of depressed writers, who are brilliant but don’t seem able to take their eyes off the worst of human nature. You can also subdivide the genre again; the amusing, such as Janet Evanovitch, and the forensic with Patricia Cornwell. Add in the historical – such as R D Sansom, the sci-fi and the chiller thriller, and you begin to see how wide the murder mystery casts its net.

Throughout all these developments, Cluedo Grown Up has continued, mainly though not exclusively for the library market, aiming for a particular audience which doesn’t want shock/horror, swearing, drinking and pages of copulation. They want a solid story, good characterisation, taking out of themselves with the knowledge that they are going to feel better at the end of the book. They want to identify with the characters, and even to learn something from them.

This sub-genre of ‘cosies’ has been given new names at various times. ‘Gentle crime’ is one title they’ve been given. Now there’s a new title for us, which is ‘good reads’. There is even a website in which readers can nominate a ‘good read’. These books do not dwell on blood, the characters do not swear or drink very much, and they certainly are not sexually explicit. The ‘Cat Who’ mysteries by Lilian Jackson Braun are a good American example of crimes solved in the community without recourse to shock-horror tactics. Donna Leon does this for Venice, and the Inspector Montalbano series does it for Sicily, though with a trifle more romping in bed than the others.

These particular writers are usually mid-listers though some climb to best-seller status. They have a faithful following, they are not one book marvels and will bring their authors an reasonable income. With a few exceptions, they are not usually reviewed except in the trade papers, which is where shops and libraries find out what is happening.

Some, though not all of these Good Reads, have a Christian world view. Occasionally they have overt Christian content. This is not really anything new, of course, as Chesterton’s Father Brown stories prove. Nowadays some of these stories are published in the Christian market place, but though they have made an effort, few Christian bookshops can sell hardback fiction. So most go straight into the general arena. The Mama Ramotswe books by Alexander McCall Smith are a good example of this.

The two series of mysteries which I write also fit into this category and go all over the world without anyone screaming they should be banned because they show people trying to behave like Christians in an unsympathetic world.

And now comes James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and . .. . series of books, going straight into the general marketplace. Published by Bloomsbury they are doing well in this niche market. Six books have been envisaged, one per decade, starting in l953 and ending in l978. The writer has chosen what some may consider a difficult format; six shortish stories set in its appropriate decade, dealing with some matter which occupied our minds at that time. So the first in the series deals with the prejudice against a German girl who married an Englishman, the question of homosexuality and the death sentence AS WE SAW IT AT THE TIME.

The second book concerns itself with spying and the Cold War. Not every story concerns itself with these themes. Not every story is a murder mystery, though many are. Other themes are the conflict between love and duty – in the broadest sense – and Sidney’s long debate with himself about which of two women he loves enough to marry.

A word about the short story genre. Most books of short stories are compiled from submissions which have previously been published in magazines – which does not seem to have been the case in this instance. So it has been a deliberate choice to write in this way. It is notoriously difficult to write short stories because, if you want to bring in some characterisation, you have to pack an awful lot into a short space. James Runcie has proved that he can write full length books, but it is a deliberate choice to span the stories over a period of time, in order to allow him to deal with the question that trouble people minds in each decade. I don’t know anyone else who has made such a choice. It’s intriguing, and I think it works.

* * * * * * * * *

James Runcie is a writer and film-maker, and yes, son of the archbishop. His films include Heaven, The Great Fire, My Father, Saturday/Sunday, Miss Pym’s Day Out and Childhood. He is currently Head of Literature at the Southbank Centre. He lives in London and Edinburgh.

I’ve read his early books and found myself amazed at the different genres he has attempted. His first novel, The Discovery of Chocolate, was published to great acclaim – or so the blurb says. It’s a variation on the theme of the Wandering Jew or the Flying Dutchman, condemned to wander the world developing the chocolate he found in Mexico and meeting famous people, until eventually he rediscovers his lost love and, presumably, dies. Diego is not a very heroic character but the menus for the chocolate and treatment thereof sound wonderful.

The second also finds a man travelling there and back again, ending in the arms of his beloved, and also facing an unknown future. This is The Colour of Heaven, which is inspired by the Renaissance discovery of lapis lazuli which created the most dense ultramarine blue, imported from what is now Afghanistan. A foundling is brought up by a glassblower in Venice until his short sight makes him a liability, whereupon he adventures to the East and returns with specs and lapis lazuli – only to journey back to the East to the woman he has come to love.

You could argue that the plot contains flaws, but even in these two early books, the writing is distinctive and the beliefs stated by various characters are worth consideration. Here is a monk talking about life .. . . ‘You cannot pray without doubt, love without fear, or live without the past. There is no such thing as a new life without an awareness of the past; cleanliness without forgiveness; redemption without the knowledge of sin.’

So far, so good. You’d think Runcie would now go on to investigate more oddities from the history of the planet. But not so. He dives straight into the recent past with CANVEY ISLAND, pub 2006, also read on Radio 4.

This is a multi point of view story covering the lives of two families living in the Canvey Island area when the sea overwhelmed it in l953, and affects all their lives. One man is traumatised because of a wartime near drowning, the protagonist’s father loses his wife in the inundation that ruined their home. Their son, is obsessed with the movements of the water and drifts between two girls who have also been affected by the flood.

The multi POV usually annoys me as the reader has to switch sympathies so often but the style seems so effortless, and the characterisation is so good that in this case I didn’t object. The writing is beautiful, catching the bravery, the stoicism, of the father, whom I suppose we must term lower middle class, for instance . . . ‘Apart from the war, Dad had only been as far as London. He didn’t even have a passport’. And in a delightful description, ‘Out of the hospital window the sky was dull silver, like the back of a herring too late to sell.’
I think this book should live, but I’m not sure about the fourth.

EAST FORTUNE also details the lives of a family through a year of traumatic happenings. While the father fades and dies, one son’s marriage breaks up, another loses his job and chooses a second, rather risky, career. Then there is a rather delightful late flowering romance between a divorced middle-aged man and the fiancée of a man who had killed himself by throwing himself under the middle-aged man’s car. The family is upper middle class this time, and the moving decline and death of the father is lovingly portrayed. Ends are not tied up and you can imagine their lives going on after the book has ended.

And then out of the blue, Runcie produces Sidney Chambers & the Shadow of Death. The ‘Shadow of Death’, by the way, is a quote from the bible.

Six short stories starting in l953. ‘Canon Sidney Chambers had never intended to become a detective. Indeed, it came about quite by chance, after a funeral, when a handsome woman of indeterminate age, voiced her suspicion that the recent death of a Cambridge solicitor was not suicide, as had been widely reported, but murder.’

Sidney is a tall, slender man in his early thirties. A lover of warm beer and hot jazz, he is a keen cricketer. Through some quirk of the Church of England rules and regulations he has been made a Canon, so he lectures in a college in Cambridge as part of his duties as the incumbent in a parish in Grantchester. He cycles everywhere, has a morose housekeeper who tries to keep him in check, is absentminded in social matters, but precise in such details as exactly how long it takes to boil his breakfast egg. He has a weekly date for backgammon with a local inspector of police, and, eventually, a dog whom he calls Dickens. Because of his mild exterior, people sometimes jump to the conclusion that he would have been a pacifist in World War II where he did fight, he did have to kill, and he was awarded the Military Cross.

Now it’s a premise of story-telling that if you wish to make your protagonist believable, it’s advisable to make your hero flawed in some way. Sidney, I’m sorry to say, is a bit of a ditherer. He is a diffident man with very little sense of self-worth, constantly aware he is not as good a Christian as he should be, unsure of himself in many ways yet with strong opinions on all sorts of subjects – such as homosexuality – which he may or may not keep to himself.

His take on the nobility is spot on – remember this is the l950s. ‘He enjoyed the spaciousness of their homes and the warmth of their hospitality but he found their sense of entitlement unnerving.’
He is also vain, not about his looks — he thinks he might have a look about him of Kenneth More, though he doesn’t allow himself to dwell upon it – but about his mental abilities and his talent as a cricketer – which drops him into a small depression when he is asked to umpire rather than turn out for his local team! He can be obtuse – especially about women and in particular with what the reader can see are multiple efforts by his long-time upper class friend Amanda to lure him into matrimony. Amanda is clever and he has been through a stage when he longed for her mightily, but concluded that she was beyond his reach socially and financially and would never make a vicar’s wife. Amanda’s efforts to make him realise she is his for the taking, fall on stony ground. As for his deep but unspoken feelings for the widowed music teacher, Hildegard, the reader is drawn to the conclusion that Sidney is not perhaps over-endowed with testosterone. What he appreciates about her is that she makes him feel at home. Perhaps he is right to choose Hildegard at the end of book two, although I don’t feel he’s going to wear the trousers in his marriage.

Yet given all that, he runs his parish with efficiency, even if ‘he wished that he could be a better priest. He hoped he could bring comfort but there were times when he just had to understand that he could not be all things to all men.’ He is an unassuming but deeply felt Christian. His musings about what to preach often derive from what has happened that week and when drawn into a detective case he is always worrying that it is taking time from his ‘real’ work.

Sometimes the issues at stake are moral, as in the interesting case of the doctor who might or might not be helping elderly patients to die. Sidney visits and listens and agonises about what might or might not have happened. He thinks he hasn’t done any good but the coroner says to him ‘What you did was to cut off any possibility that the doctor could justify his actions. Your presence reminded him that there were God’s laws as well as man’s, and that even if he could explain his behaviour with a clear conscience on this earth, then he might still be answerable to a stricter ethical power in the afterlife.’

Some readers may find Sidney’s struggle to be a better Christian hard to understand. In this day do ministers really go on about this? Perhaps they should, even if they don’t. Perhaps they don’t talk about it? He is of his time, remember. The same thing applies when he’s asked to say grace, or he speaks German. With his educational background, quite naturally he drops into Latin, and German. The writer does not concern himself to translate. Most modern writers would have dropped into the vernacular, and you may be annoyed with Runcie that he hasn’t done so. It is generally understood nowadays that if you want to quote in another language, or use an obscure word, you give the translation as well or make it clear what you’ve said by the context. Runcie doesn’t bother. It will be interesting to see how the television adaptation deals with this.

To my way of thinking, the dialogue does not always flow easily. It’s as if Sidney is playing cricket with a straight bat all the time. He’s not often allowed to knock a ball for six, but contents himself with playing each ball back to the bowler in deliberate fashion. The replies are well thought out before being delivered. In his thoughts, however, he can be fanciful and there is no such restraint.

The plots themselves; some are fairly simplistic, relying purely on clues which the reader can spot as easily as Sidney does. Others are more obscure, and rely more on knowledge of the workings of human nature. In the second book of the series, SIDNEY CHAMBERS AND THE PERILS OF THE NIGHT, the solution of the mysteries depends even more on Sidney’s interpretation of what people say and how they act. A don climbing a Cambridge turret at night falls to his death, but the master of the college may be involved in a cover-up. A photographer’s studio burns down but neither the artist nor a local girl are as innocent as they seem. Hildegard comes to stay nearby and drags Sidney into the death of a don found in his bath. Interracial relationships cause the death of a fine cricketer immigrant – an early example of an honour killing. Amanda announces her engagement, but not only is her fiancé already married but there is a question as to whether his wife knew what he was up to. Finally as the Cold War hots up, Sidney is naive enough to upset the Soviets when he is found on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall as it is being built, and escapes with Hildegard to the future – and matrimony.

At one point Sidney is drawn into a conversation about the power of evil in the land, to which he replies that much more difficult to cope with is the power of good. Perhaps he’s going to deal with that in his next book?

Sidney is a good man. Which is rarer in literature than it is in life. He would never think of himself as a role model, and yet that is what he is becoming. These stories are ‘light’ reads but they are full of interest. I look forward with pleasure to the next one.

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