I can’t believe that I never heard of this little gem of a mystery series till now. I am usually fairly clued in to the latest mysteries and thrillers, but apparently four books in the Grantchester Mysteries series have been published without me noticing them at all.
What is the series about?
This is an ecclesiastical compilation of short mysteries by James Runcie set in Grantchester, Cambridge in England post World War 2. The particular books I read – The Problem of Evil and The Forgiveness of Sins are set in the early to mid-sixties.
Sidney Chambers who became a priest after serving in the second World War is a vicar who has a knack for nosing out suspicious occurrences and solving problems that baffle his friend Inspector Geordie. He has just settled into married life with a German woman Hildegard, and struggles quite a bit juggling time between his priestly duties and the demands of his personal life.
His frequent forays into criminal investigations don’t help matters at home much.
These books that I am reviewing here are books 3 and 4 in the series, and though it helps to read these books in order, I didn’t find it disorienting to jump into the series midway. There is enough backstory provided making it easy for the reader to catch up.
Sidney Chambers and The Problem of Evil
In the first story, Sidney Chambers has to catch a serial killer who has a grudge against the clergy. This is probably the most action-packed story in the book, and wasn’t actually to my taste. When I started this series, I was looking for a cozy mystery, not serial killers.
Thankfully, the series changes course from the second story onwards. This one deals with a robbery of an obscure painting from a museum while a beautiful girl parades naked through the gallery singing a French love-song. The crime itself is a tad unbelievable however I found Sidney Chambers’ forays into the art world of the swinging 60s very enjoyable.
In the third story, Sidney plays the role of a clergyman on a film set, and witnesses what may or may not be an accidental drowning. And in the last (and possibly the best story) Sidney investigates the problem of a baby stolen from his hospital crib.
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Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins
I think I like The Forgiveness of Sins better because I love that these stories have an overarching theme that is so strongly defined – namely the ability to forgive another for their sins. And most important, should you? This theme gets progressively stronger with each story in the book.
The first of the six stories starts with a classic locked-room style mystery. A man wakes up convinced he’s murdered his wife, but where’s the body? When he finds out the truth about what happened to her, will he be able to forgive the culprit?
In A Following, Sidney’s ex-girlfriend faces a challenging dilemma when she receives poison pen letters on the eve of her wedding. Should she call off the wedding, or put her faith in her fiancé and continue on? When she finds out the truth, will she be able to forgive and forget and move on with her life?
In Prize Day, what seems a boyish prank when some school boys bomb their science lab takes a darker and heart-breaking turn.
And in Florence, where Sidney is wrongly accused of theft of a famous painting, he goes on the warpath to find the real culprits. Once he does nab them, he finds his capacity for Christian tolerance and forgiveness tested to the core. He almost gets to the verge of turning communist!
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My Thoughts on the Series in General
I am not a huge fan of mystery shorts. I find that they are too short to have any sense of mystery, and by the time you have understood the setting and the characters, it seems the crime is resolved. The only ones I have been able to stomach are the Sherlock Holmes stories. Even Dame Christie hasn’t managed to win me over with her shorts.
So, it is saying a great deal when I say that I enjoyed this series very much.
For one, it’s been ages since I read a good cozy mystery which didn’t involve old women and cats (not that I have anything against them), so Sidney’s old world and gentle charm, and his Christian philosophizing was very soothing, even healing without resorting to clichés. Sidney himself seems a very nice man, flawed, but someone who genuinely wants to do good and be a better person and a priest. He gets into investigating things because he cares about the people who are part of his parish.
Second, the stories are just so darn good. It helps that they are fairly long ones, giving Runcie enough time to set up the plot, and giving us enough time to figure out what happened.
Third, the setting of the stories and the time period just reads so pleasurably authentic. James Runcie’s background (son of an Archbishop of Canterbury) surely helped him get all the little details right.
If there are nitpicks I have it is with Chambers’ relationship with his wife, which seems a bit on the stilted side. At first, I thought it was how things were back then, but I see a warmth in his interactions with his ex-girlfriend Amanda that just does not come through in his relationship with his wife. His wife, Hildegard herself seems like a stock character who is in the books just to nag Sidney into paying more attention to her and their daughter.
Apart from this little nitpick (and a couple of sub-par stories), I thought these books were great, cozy mysteries, and a pleasant change of pace from the usual books I favor, and I do plan to read the first two books in this series, and maybe even catch the TV series if it ever comes on in India.
Have you read these books, or watched the series? How did you like them?
Huge thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me these books for review consideration.