Sydney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie

the shadow of deathOld-style mysteries…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

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.

James Runcie
James Runcie

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.

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12 thoughts on “Sydney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie

  1. It’s interesting you would mention that drawback of short stories – not a lot of room for character development. One does have to be really talented at saying a great deal in a few words with a short story. This collection seems like fun though, and it’s nice to have an occasional salute, so to speak, to the traditional amateur-detective mystery.


    • I’ve never been a great fan of the short story format – with the solitary exception of Holmes. Though even there, I prefer the long stories. However, the overarching story kept this interesting, and I enjoy the old-fashioned mystery style as a change from time to time.


  2. Sounds very interesting. Personally, I think I’d prefer a bunch of shorter mysteries to one longer one. But that’s probably because the professor has trouble reading large books!

    I like the main character’s name a lot–which is a good thing. Something tells me that the author has the tendency to become quite vicious!


  3. Nothing to do really with this – though it sounds more fitting to one who does not like too much gore splattering the ground (I would be more likely to be a poisoner than a wielder of hacksaw, ice-pick or submachine gun – all of which are just way too MESSY and leave stains on the carpet and walls _ – I’m anticipatory that you are reading another Kalfus. I’ve got a different other one waiting on one of the chairs of to-be-reads and your review of your second Kalfus might even cause my second one to leapfrog the pile.


    • I’ve only read a few pages so far, but it’s got that same sharp precision in the writing…

      I’ll be sticking up a review in a day or two, but have you requested The Color Master from NG? I’ll probably be 4 starring it (maybe 5 – still mulling), but I suspect it might be right up your street. Modern folk tales would be the closest I could come – mystical, quirky, strange. Variable, but the best stories are really excellent and the writing is first-rate…


  4. I looked at this is the library but I’m not a fan of the short story at the best of times and even less so where crime fiction is concerned. There’s never enough time to develop the plot line; every one gets caught too soon and too easily. I don’t think the two forms work well together.


    • I tend to agree – I hadn’t actually realised this was going to be short stories when I got it, I thought it was a full-length novel. I also find the idea of an amateur detective harder to cope with these days although it’s set in the 50s. Odd, because I never struggle with Miss Marple or Poirot… I think I’ve just been too indoctrinated over recent years into police procedurals.

      All that said, this was a very good example of what it is.


  5. I loaded this onto my kindle when it came out but (story of my life) I haven’t got around to reading it yet. Maybe I’ll shove it up the list. Unlike you, I love short stories and read hundreds of them every year.


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