5 plot-twisting tales in Sidney Chambers collection
SIDNEY CHAMBERS AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH. By James Runcie. Bloomsbury. 400 pages. $16.
There’s an appealing and appropriate cover illustration for British author James Runcie’s new mystery, “Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death.”
A man and his black Lab stand in a field as they gaze upon one of England’s dreaming spires (Cambridge, in this case). In the foreground looms the shadow of a man, probably meant to be one of the murderers featured in this five-story collection, stalking vicar Sidney Chambers as he serves God and solves crimes.
I’m taking a different tack: I think this shadow is the shade of Father Brown.
Father Brown was the hero of a series of mysteries British author/philosopher G.K. Chesterton wrote in the first half of the 20th century. The father was a Catholic priest with a razor-sharp intellect, a profound understanding of human nature and a rock-solid faith in God.
Edinburgh author/filmmaker Runcie, son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, has created a hero who walks in Father Brown’s distinguished footsteps. Sidney Chambers is a vicar of the Anglican church, a war veteran who teaches at Cambridge on the side. He also solves mysteries.
The five stories in “Shadow of Death,” set in the England of the 1950s, involve some improbable setups and the usual stuff of English murder mysteries, including a suicide that isn’t, jewelry theft and art forgery.
What sets them apart is Sidney Chambers’ world view. He’s a Christian, but his detective work forces him to confront the darker side of human nature, a good-evil dichotomy some might call the ultimate mystery.
These stories bear some resemblance to the “cozy” mystery genre; there’s a fair amount of taking tea and backgammon by the fire. But there’s also serious philosophizing and soul-searching, and Runcie has a gift for twisting a plot.
Five more books in the series are planned. Will they be as good as “Shadow of Death”? Hope springs eternal.
Reviewer Mary Ann Gwinn, a writer with The Seattle Times