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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Grantchester Season 2 Review

  • Title:  Grantchester
  • Season: 2
  • Episodes: 6
  • Discs: 2
  • Cast:  Robson Green, James Norton, Morven Christie, Tessa Peake-Jones
  • Network:  ITV
  • DVD Format:  Widescreen, Color, DVD, R1, NTSC

Grantchester is an English cozy-style mystery set in the small village of Grantchester, near Cambridge. Canon Sidney Chambers and Inspector Geordie Keating are unlikely friends and partners who work together to solve crimes and care for the people of their village, each in their own way. Season 2 opens with Geordie and his wife, Kathy, determined to help Sidney find a wife, to wit they take him on several disastrous double dates. Sidney, as a priest in the Church of England (Anglican) tradition, can marry, though it isn’t required. Sidney meets a young woman, Margaret, who works for the police, and the two start dating. However, Sidney realizes he’s still in love with Amanda.

Meanwhile, Amanda is now married to Guy, a landed aristocrat. She spends all her days in a huge mansion where she doesn’t even have housework to do, as the house is full of servants. Amanda is bored out of her mind, not satisfied with her marriage, and thinks she’s still attracted to Sidney. Sidney, for his part, knows he’s in love with her, and regrets never telling her his feelings before she married and became untouchable. By the end of the season, Amanda is pregnant as well.

The opening mystery has Sidney briefly accused of statutory rape against a 15-year-old girl. However, the only “proof” is what the girl’s father claims he read in his daughter’s diary. The diary, and the girl herself are mysteriously missing. The girl is found dead in the studio of a sleazy photographer that she was posing for to get money. The photographer is cleared of her death, however, because he’s gay and by this time it’s become obvious that the girl was also pregnant. They discover she had a male friend, Gary Bell, who knew about the pregnancy. He’s eventually accused of causing her death. He claims it was an accident, but he’s found guilty anyway and sentenced to hang. And Gary is, although technically 18, also has developmental disabilities.

This case and the fall out from it runs through the rest of the season. Geordie sees the crime of capital punishment as “justice”. Sidney sees it as a crime. Geordie thinks Gary intended to kill the girl because her death was so violent. Sidney believes Gary that it was an accident. Geordie even thinks Gary might be the father since the two were friends. Sidney believes it was someone else and that the girl went to Gary for help. And on it goes.

The next case is the only one I actually remember from Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night, there’s a mysterious death at Cambridge, and even though it’s technically outside the jurisdiction of the police and of course, Sidney, he and Geordie get involved anyway. They uncover a nest of both British and Russian spies, and ultimately have to hide the exact circumstances of the young man’s death from his foreign wife for national security reasons.

Back in Grantchester, Geordie and Sidney both testify in Gary Bell’s case, but on opposite sides. Gary is found guilty and sentenced to hang. Sidney continues to visit him at the prison, and Geordie gets increasingly frustrated with the situation. Margaret pursues Sidney, but even though he’s attracted, he’s deeply in love with Amanda. She keeps returning to Grantchester, but the two cannot be together.

Leonard meets and becomes friends with another man. This friend keeps trying to make their relationship romantic, but Leonard’s deep commitment to the Church, natural shyness, and even sense of duty to English law prevent him from accepting even a kiss. Eventually, Leonard catches his friend with another man and leaves, but is broken up about it.

By the end of the season, Mrs. McGuire is starting to date a new man – though it took her awhile to accept the idea that it was OK.

Dickens, Sidney’s black lab, is adorable and very present throughout the season.

Gary Bell is hung for his crimes, leading to a confrontation between Sidney and Geordie, but then another 15-year-old girl goes missing. And Sam, a defrocked Anglican priest was a boarder at her mother’s house. The dead girl from earlier in the season had also been close friends with Sam. The Arch Deacon offers Leonard the parish post in Grantchester if he helps oust Sidney as an embarrassment to the Church. Leonard is appalled at the suggestion. But Sidney, Leonard, and Geordie investigate – separately. Leonard discovers the Arch Deacon paid for Sam’s room and board. The Arch Deacon also new of several accusations against Sam for inappropriate actions with young girls. Leonard takes this information to the Bishop. Geordie and Sidney find the young girl, alive, and Margaret gets her talking. They find Sam, but the girl’s parents had found him first. The wife attacks Sam with a garden trowel, severely injuring him. Her husband hides him in a cellar beneath their barn. However, Geordie finds Sam while he’s still alive.

Even though Sidney is appalled by the violence of the situation, he finds he also can’t forgive Sam on a personal basis. The chase brings Geordie and Sidney back together as friends. The two repair their friendship and even hug. Geordie, who had also had some problems in his marriage, makes up with Kathy, his wife, as well.

Having read the first two Grantchester books by James Runcie, one thing I was confused about in the second season of the show was the total absence of Sidney’s German girlfriend. In the books, he’s clearly in love with her, the two write letters to each other, and Sidney eventually goes to Germany to visit her. He ends-up sneaking her out of East Berlin as the Berlin Wall goes up, and brings her back to Grantchester. And in the books, Amanda’s marriage is a fait accompli and very little is said about her. So I was confused that the television series has a completely different plot for Sidney’s love life. Also, really, there’s only three or so actual mysteries in the second season, and the rest of the six episodes revolves around thorny ethical issues that the characters end up being on opposite sides of. In part this gives the show a dramatic theme for the season. But in part, I found it to be a bit forced. Still, Grantchester is an excellent series. It’s shot beautifully. The characters are complex and well-rounded, not flat. I recommend it. There is a third season available, but I haven’t purchased it yet. The Grantchester Mysteries series of books now include six volumes and I’ve read two.

Read my Grantchester Season 1 Review.

Read my review of Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death.

Read my review of Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night.

Book Review – Sidney Chambers and the Perils of Night

  • Title: Sidney Chambers and the Perils of Night
  • Author: James Runcie
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 06/07/2015

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night is the second Grantchester mystery featuring the amateur detective and full-time parish priest, Sidney Chambers. It’s a typical British cozy, set in the small English village of Grantchester near Cambridge, in England. The time is the mid-1950s and early 1960s.

The novel is actually six related short stories. The first and third stories are set at Cambridge where Sidney, as a fellow of Corpus Christi College acts as intermediary between the University (which seems to police itself under the Master) and the police (who cannot investigate a crime at the university unless invited – even murder). The first story doesn’t even seem to be resolved, as it points to the British Security Services and a possible double agent (as well as campus recruiting) and everyone pretty much says, “drop it”, and a mysterious fatal accident is determined to be an “accident”.

The third story, also at Cambridge, is a locked-room story, but that accident is proven to be murder and the guilty party is arrested.

The second story is a rather bizarre tale of arson. I liked how Sidney figured it out – but it just seemed very weird.

The fourth story is the obligatory Cricket story. The first half is detailed, full of cricketing slang, and if you don’t understand cricket – very hard to follow. However, the murder and reasons for the murder (and again, it’s a murder at first disguised as natural causes) openly discuss 1950s racist British attitudes, as well as the younger generation’s ignoring of those attitudes. It’s a good story, with the excellent moral that hating people who are different from you is bad. Which should be obvious, but especially these days it doesn’t seem to be at all.

The fifth story has Amanda finally deciding to marry – and making a very bad choice. I’m not going to spoil the details, though. The story gets into the thorny problem of seeing a friend of the opposite sex making a life decision that one is convinced is bad for them and how the characters deal with it. In other words, Sidney, who is great friends with Amanda, is convinced from the start that her new fiancé, well, that there is something wrong. When Sidney brings up his fears – of course Amanda thinks he’s simply jealous. But the story is more complicated than that and has some important consequences.

In the last story, Sidney, goes to Germany to meet his on-again/off-again/-on-again girlfriend, Hildegard. Remember, that as an Anglican priest – he can marry and is somewhat expected to marry. Unfortunately, when he arrives in West Berlin, she’s gone to East Berlin to see her mother whom she was told had a stroke. Sidney, being Sidney, cannot have the good fortune to get into East Berlin without incident – and once that’s cleared up, he and Hildegard make the mistake of staying in East Berlin for a few days. As they attempt to leave, the Berlin Wall goes up and they have to sneak out. It’s an exciting story that balances history, their personal relationship, and a certain amount of “What are you doing?” reaction from the reader.

Overall, another excellent mystery short story collection in the English cozy style. There’s less of Inspector Keating in this particular book, but I still enjoyed it. Recommended.

Book Review – Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

  • Title: Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death
  • Author: James Runcie
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 05/31/2015

My Dad actually introduced me to the Canon Sidney Chambers mystery series. He read a review in one of the magazines or newspapers he subscribes to of the British television series which ran in the US on PBS. Before long I was recording the PBS series, Grantchester, on my DVR and I ended-up watching it with my parents – and believe me, that never happens.

Then I bought all three Sidney Chambers novels for my Dad for his birthday – but once he finished reading them, I immediately borrowed them back to read.

I just finished the first book, and it really is excellent.

Canon Sidney Chambers is an Anglican priest in the small village of Grantchester, just outside Cambridge, England, in the early 1950s. The novel is six interlinked short stories. In the first one, Sidney becomes an unwilling detective. There is a murder in his parish, and Sidney’s best friend, police inspector, Geordie Keating, talks him into investigating, telling him, “People will tell you things they won’t tell me.” (paraphrase) Sidney, turns out to be a good detective, and becomes involved in five more cases. They aren’t always murders – one story involves a stolen engagement ring – another a stolen painting. And Sidney is conflicted – as a priest, he feels he should see the best in people. But as a detective he must see the worst, as his close friend, Geordie, reminds him.

Sidney is also romantically conflicted, though not so much as he is in the television series, Grantchester, he meets a German woman who had followed her husband back to Grantchester, but finds herself widowed. The murder of her husband is Sidney’s first case. Yet, when everyone in his sleepy English village distrusts the German woman, Sidney is quite taken with her.

Sidney’s other romantic interest is Amanda, his sister’s friend. Introduced in the second story, Amanda and Sidney become friends and even work on cases together. But she is rich and privledged – and he’s a poor clergyman. Both think remaining friends is better than getting married.

It’s a traditional English Cozy setting: sleepy English village, amateur detective who’s fallen into being a detective – then happens to be there when crimes occur, a cast of lovable off-beat characters surrounding our main character, and there’s even a dog, named Dickens. But as much as Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death checks every box marked “traditional English Cozy mystery”, it somehow rises above it’s component parts. The publication date is 2012, so it brings somewhat modern attitudes to an historical era – the prejudice, un-equal social status, and repression of the 1950s are subtly condemned for what they are, through Sidney’s eyes – as he’s a modern character, with modern ideas. I breezed through this novel quickly, and enjoyed it very much.

For those having doubts about a mystery series where the main character is an Anglican priest, really, give these a try. I found them to not be “preachy”. Yes, the subject of religion comes up – but more because it is part of Sidney’s job than anything else, and Sidney never seems to be up to date on writing his sermons.

The novel, and the television series, are highly recommended.

Follow this link to read my Grantchester Series 1 review.

Grantchester series 2 and 3 are also available on DVD.

Grantchester Series 1 Review

  • Title:  Grantchester
  • Season: 1
  • Episodes: 6
  • Discs: 2
  • Cast:  Robson Green, James Norton, Morven Christie, Tessa Peake-Jones, Pheline Roggen, Al Weaver
  • Network:  ITV
  • DVD Format:  Widescreen, Color, DVD, R1, NTSC

Grantchester is an English cozy mystery for the screen, based on a recent set of mysteries by James Runcie. I’ve read the first two Sidney Chamber mystery novels and thoroughly enjoyed them – reviews can be found on my GoodReads page. The Sidney Chambers novels are written as related short stories which is perfect to adapt to television. I have the next two in the series but haven’t read them yet.

Canon Sidney Chambers (James Norton) is an Anglican priest who becomes an accidental detective. Sidney isn’t old or stuffy, however. As a result of his experiences fighting in Word War II, he’s suffering from PTSD – specifically nightmares. He drinks, possibly too much, listens to jazz (much to the chagrin of his housekeeper, Mrs. MaGuire), and chases women. As an Anglican priest, he can marry, though he isn’t required to marry.

In the first story, Sidney takes the funeral of a man who “committed suicide”, which everyone else had refused to do according to the man’s wife. The man’s mistress comes to Sidney, and tells him that the man was actually murdered. Sidney takes her anonymous information to the police, in the form of Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green), which starts a beautiful friendship between the two.

Soon the priest and the cop are solving crimes together. People tell Sidney things they won’t tell the police, both because he’s a vicar and because of Sidney’s innate compassion for everyone. But solving crimes also takes it toil on Sidney – as the man who is supposed to see the best in everyone is forced to see the worse. Sidney also is often able to make connections that lead him to solve cases.

Sidney and Geordie make a great pair, and being so different, they can work together to sort through the thorny problems and cases in the small village of Grantchester, near Cambridge, England. Set in the early 1950s, Sidney is written as a modern man – so he rallies against the racism, classism, and prejudice of the times. Whether it’s the class distinctions that mean he can’t be with the woman he loves, Amanda. Or the prejudice that his housekeeper at first has against his next girlfriend, Hildegard, who happens to be German. Or the racism his sister faces for dating a Black jazz singer. Or even Geordie’s prejudice against homosexuals (including Geordie’s arresting gays for “gross indecency”). Often it is the foibles of people who are at the root of the crime, including murder.

The cast is rounded out by Leonard, a newly minted priest that Sidney takes under his wing; Mrs. McGuire, the gruff housekeeper at the Vicarage; Amanda Kendall, a rich socialite who has been Sidney’s friend for years; Hildegard, Sidney’s new girlfriend that he meets on his first case; and occasionally Sidney’s sister, Jennifer, and Geordie’s wife, Cathy.

Grantchester is a great show, beautifully filmed, with a talented cast. It has the tone that many great English cozies have of the perfect image, that is seething with prejudice, jealousy, hatred, assumption, and guilt underneath. And the cast brings the characters to life wonderfully. Again, just because the main character is a priest doesn’t make Grantchester stodgy, stuffy, preachy, and certainly not boring. If you get the chance to see it I’d definitely recommend it.