I didn’t read the promotional blurb, so I saw the title The Road to Grantchester and assumed I was getting the new Sydney Chambers mystery by author, filmmaker, and playwright James Runcie. I was right on two of my three assumptions. It is a new Sydney Chambers story. It is written by Runcie, who’s published six previous Sydney Chambers mysteries. Where I erred was in the word “mystery.”
The Road to Grantchester is not a mystery. It is a prequel to the mystery series, and it has several of the characters who populate the mysteries. But it is an extraordinarily fine literary novel. I kept expecting a mystery to develop, and it never did, although there is a brief mystery that occurs and is solved by Chambers in one chapter, sufficient to prompt his friend and possible romantic interest Amanda Kendall to call him “Sherlock.” But it is only a slight taste, and the story settles quickly back into the novel it is.
The novel tells Chambers’ story, what his life was like before World War II, what happened during the war, how Chambers came to faith, and how he decided he was being called to the Anglican priesthood. It is also a phenomenally well-researched book; the impressive bibliography included as an appendix testifies to that.
A significant character in the book (and not in the mystery stories, with good reason) is Robert Kendall, Amanda’s older brother. He is Sydney’s best friend and fellow Cambridge student. When the war begins, they join the same unit of the Scot Guards and eventually finding themselves fighting their way up the Italian peninsula, including the horrific battle around Monte Cassino. Robert is the natural leader, the life of the party, the golden boy who everyone expects will go on to do great things. Except Robert dies in the war.
At war’s end, Sydney is assigned temporarily to a British diplomatic mission in Trieste before returning home. The Kendall family remains devastated with their son’s death; Sydney himself is having a terrible time trying to understand his friend’s death and make sense of his own future life. It grows clear that Amanda is in love with him, but Sydney keeps deferring any of his own initiative. Instead, he focuses on what he comes to see as a calling to the priesthood, much to Amanda’s and his own family’s shock and dismay.
All the while there’s something lurking, something not disclosed or understood, in Sydney’s life. When it comes, the reader is at first shocked. And then the shock gives way almost immediately to clarity.
The Road to Grantchester is so good that I almost want to see Runcie set aside his mysteries and focus instead on novels like this one. But the novel and the mysteries are of a piece. A wonderful, often heart-wrenching piece.