Although I read this book during the Clean Sweep Readathon in May, I’m delighted to post the review today on the anniversary of receiving it in a swag bag from Writers’ Centre Norwich as part of the Noirwich Crime Festival. I’m there all this weekend, with tonight’s feature being Sophie Hannah in conversation with Denise Mina.
The loveable full time priest and part time detective Canon Sidney Chambers continues his sleuthing adventures in late 1950’s Cambridge. Accompanied by his faithful Labrador Dickens, and working in tandem with the increasingly exasperated Inspector Geordie Keating, Sidney is called on to investigate the unexpected fall of a Cambridge don from the roof of King’s College Chapel; a case of arson at a glamor photographer’s studio; and the poisoning of Zafar Ali, Grantchester’s finest spin bowler, in the middle of a crucial game of cricket. As he pursues his quietly probing inquiries, Sidney also has to decide on the vexed question of marriage. Can he choose between the rich, glamorous socialite Amanda Kendall and Hildegard Staunton, a beguiling German widow three years his junior? To help him make up his mind Sidney takes a trip abroad, only to find himself trapped in a complex web of international espionage just as the Berlin Wall is going up.
Here are six interlocking adventures that combine mystery with morality, and criminality with charm.
1950’s Cambridge is a strange sort of place, full of mysteries and intrigue, and it probably helps if you remember the Cold War from the British perspective (think Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Sleepy Cambridge seems to be worlds away from that, but the undercurrent is there – the recruitment of Burgess, Maclean and the others is a spectre over the good name of these bastions of the British establishment, the colleges. It’s an atmosphere that James Runcie creates spectacularly well, and reminds me of my brother’s comment on his escape from it, ‘it was all so grey’. Thank goodness the Beatles broke it up a bit before I left school!
Sidney Chambers, our clerical sleuth, is one of those people you tend to love or hate. He’s well characterised, and, well, I dislike him and much of what he stands for. I’m irritated by his foibles and his on-off relationships with women with varying degrees of interesting pasts. Which shows what a good character he, and they, are!
The short story that started the volume seemed to be unrelated to the ones that followed, but gradually they melded into a super spy thriller which went much, much further than I expected. It culminates in events that have you cringing, ‘no, don’t be so stupid!’ so swept up you become as you read.
It’s extremely well done, in fact. I just don’t think I’ll choose to read more of our Sidney (and his lovable Labrador), although James Runcie is well worth another read. If you like the cosier side of British life in the dark days of the 50s and 60s, you’ll enjoy this. I gave it 3 Goodreads stars, since I liked it a lot eventually, but first it bored me, then it irritated me to bits.
Rather like a men’s Miss Marple, Sidney Chambers adds crime solving to his work as the local vicar in a suburb of Cambridge. In a series of linked short stories, he uncovers hints of spy rings in the mid 1950s Corpus Christi college, rambles through the nefarious doings of his parishioners, bores me to tears with an interminable and detailed account of several cricket matches, and finishes up in 1961 in Berlin – not a good time to go visiting friends in Leipzig. It’s somehow compelling, but I don’t know why.