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Set in the small Cambridgeshire town of Grantchester in the 1950s, this book is a throwback to the earlier days of mystery writing, before forensics and police procedure took over the world. Canon Sydney Chambers is a young priest in the Church of England who, in the grand old tradition, gets involved as an amateur detective in helping the police to investigate a series of crimes.
There are six separate stories in the book, each roughly novella length, with plots ranging from murder in a jazz club to art forgery and theft. The overarching storyline is primarily concerned with Sydney’s love-life (or lack thereof) as he is attracted firstly to the German wife of a murder victim and then to Amanda, a rich socialite friend of his sister. Sydney is a thoughtful and somewhat understated hero. He gets to his solutions through his understanding of human nature and by quiet questioning of witnesses and suspects – there are no car chases, gunfights or big dramatic climaxes.
The author is the son of Robert Runcie, onetime Archbishop of Canterbury, so his description of the life and duties of a parish priest come over as very authentic. The various plots are interesting and often turn on the different social attitudes of the time towards such things as adultery or homosexuality, for example. Sydney and Amanda are both well-drawn characters, believable and likeable. Sydney’s friend Inspector Keating provides a down-to-earth counterpoint to Sydney’s often moralistic musings, but unfortunately has to drop into the role of stupid policeman on occasion to justify Sydney’s involvement. The stories are too short to allow for much characterisation of the victims and suspects and on the whole I think I would have preferred one more complex mystery rather than the short story format, but that’s just a matter of personal preference.
There’s enough humour to keep the tone fairly light and in general this is a gentle, almost cosy, collection. Sometimes it’s too easy to work out the solution and occasionally Sydney’s attitudes are a bit too anachronistically 21st century, but these minor flaws don’t detract too much from the overall enjoyability of these old-style mysteries. Recommended.