Wednesday, March 16, 2016

James Runcie’s “Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil”

“Evil could seed itself in the quietest places and grow unchecked for years, spreading its malevolent influence until it was too late to stop.”

No, that’s not a commentary on the current U.S. presidential cycle. That’s the fictional Sidney Chambers, Anglican vicar of a church in Grantchester near Cambridge in the United Kingdom, musing to himself in James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil.

Runcie, an author and film producer, has written a continuing series of stories about Sidney Chambers which form the basis for the popular ITV (in the U.S.) and PBS (in the U.S.) series The Grantchester Mysteries (season 2 begins on PBS on March 27). Each of the four volumes are collections of stories, done in independent-yet-related-story style of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey. Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil is the third in the series, and rather than the expected six stories in the volume of its two predecessors, it’s comprised of four longer stories.

The stories cover the period 1962 to 1963, and Runcie includes enough factual events of the period to provide a context of authenticity – the rededication of Coventry Cathedral,  the death of C.S. Lewis, geopolitical developments, and others.

In the title story, “The Problem of Evil.” Sidney helps local Inspector Geordie Keating investigate what becomes a series of murders – of local vicars. The case starts with two dead doves left of Chambers’ doorstep, and escalates to something far worse.

In “Female, Nude,” Sidney is attending an art exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge when a young woman removes her long fur coat and makes rather a spectacle of her nude self as she sings a French song. Minutes later, a painting is discovered to have been cut from its frame, stolen.

James Runcie
In “Death by Water,” Sidney finds himself playing a minor role in a movie production of The Nine Tailors by mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, courtesy of a friend who is the director and wants to film in an “authentic local area” like Grantchester. Sidney plays (surprise) a vicar, and is learning the ups and downs (and moral highs and lows) of the movie businesses when one of the actors dies in what looks like, but isn’t, an accident.

The final story, “Christmas, 1963,” a baby is stolen from the maternity ward of the local Cambridge hospital, and Sidney has a case of double anxiety over it, for his wife Hildegard is imminently expecting their first child.

Through these collections of stories, Runcie is advancing Sidney both chronologically (the series starts in the 1950s) as well as spiritually. Sidney is familiar to us as a man of faith who wrestles with doubt and issues just as much as the rest of us do. He could easily have become either a failed priest or a hard-shell one, but Runcie makes him real, his humanity and flaws recognizable because we share them.

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil is not only a collection of good mystery stories, but also a discussion of the frailties and strengths of faith.


Photograph by Cambridge by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

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