Book Review – Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil

  • Title: Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil
  • Author: James Runcie
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 10/25/2018

**Spoiler Alert** Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil is a collection of four short stories. Set in the early 1960s, Sidney and his wife, Hildegard are now expecting their first child. The first story, “The Problem of Evil”, concerns a series of murders of ecclesiastical figures in Grantchester and surrounding areas. Because of the nature of the crimes, Sidney and his professional acquaintances spend more time discussing the dogma and doctrine and even popular “heresies” explaining why evil exists than working on the case or their own work. This is unusual for this series, where Sidney’s job as an Anglican priest is often treated as just that, a job – just as a lawyer, firefighter, teacher, or police officer might bring his work home and discuss it with his wife and friends – so does Sidney. Yet, the first story spends considerable time discussing an unsolvable “problem” with no answers, which was a bit off-putting. The case was also actually too easy to figure out and it made Sidney seem a bit slow on the uptake.

The second story involves an unusual art theft and was more similar to what we usually see in this series. It was also a case of someone committing a crime for reasons other than personal gain.

The third story I found really interesting by pure coincidence. I happened to be re-watching the television series based on Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter series, including The Nine Tailors when I was also reading Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil. The third story features a film production company coming to Grantchester to film a production of “The Nine Tailors”. Sidney’s even talked into playing a small part in the film, and Dickens is cast as his character’s dog. When a horrible accident occurs during filming resulting in the death of one of the actors, Sidney investigates the case. He also gets quite frustrated with his temporary part-time acting job because it’s just not the right job for him. Anyway, Sidney teases out the various relationships, and ultimately, as always solves the case. Sadly, though, Sidney’s Labrador Retriever, Dickens, who is now twelve, caught a bad case of pneumonia jumping into a river in Winter. And sadly, with the dog in pain and not eating, Sidney and Hildegard decide to have Dickens put down.

The last story is a bit of a Christmas story. As mentioned before, Hildegard is pregnant. Sidney’s friend Amanda also gets him a new Labrador puppy, named “Byron”. One of Sidney’s parishioners has her baby, without complications, but then the baby is snatched from the hospital. As Sidney and Geordie rush to find the missing child, Sidney also prepares for Christmas, his own new child, and his new puppy. In other words, he has a lot on his plate. But he also does the rounds interviewing everyone – nurses at the hospital, anyone who may have reason to kidnap a child, etc. This case has the best resolution of the four in the book because it’s based on character and redemption. Sidney has a conversation with one of the nurses and discovers she’s had three miscarriages. He also notices things about the woman’s home – such as it being warmer than it should be. Sidney tells her that if the child is returned, unharmed, even dropped off at the church or police station, all will be well. There are no unfair accusations or punishments against the nurse who kidnapped the child. The baby is dropped off at the mother’s parents house. Mother and child are reunited and checked out at the hospital but both are fine. Although Hildegard has to undergo a Cesarean section to safely deliver her child, everything is fine and she and Sidney have a healthy baby girl. Sidney also brings home his new puppy, Bryon, and all ends happily.

I’d say the last story was definitely the best of the bunch in this collection. The art theft story was OK but felt a little flat. The Nine Tailors story was interesting but it also has a lot of stereotypes about actors and the behind the scenes workers in the film and television industry that seemed to be a bit unfair. And the first story just didn’t work for me: I’d pretty much figured it out much too early. I actually don’t like that – if, as a reader, one figures out the solution too early in a detective story, it makes the detective seem dumb and unprofessional, plus the story becomes boring since you’re just waiting for the pieces to fall into place for the detective. However, I will say that I like Sidney, Hildegard, Geordie, and the other regular characters in the Grantchester novels. The books have diverged from the television series significantly, and that is OK in my book. Recommended with reservations.

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