Canon Sidney Chambers

(creator: James Runcie)

James Runcie
The Rev Canon Sidney Chambers was, when we first meet him, "a tall, slender man in his early thirties. A lover of warm beer and hot jazz, a keen cricketer and an avid reader, he was known for his understated clerical elegance. His high forehead, aquiline nose and longish chin were softened by nut-brown eyes and a gentle smile, one that suggested he was always prepare to think the best of people."

He had been ordained soon after the war (when his active service had earned him a Military Cross and, surrounded by death and destruction, he had "determined to live each day as if it was his last; and to recognise the gift of life above the eventual certainty of death. This was the seeding of his decision to become a priest."). After he was ordained, he held a brief curacy in Coventry and a short spell as domestic Chaplain to the Bishop of Ely, and had then been appointed vicar to the church of St Andrew and St Mary in Grantchester (near Cambridge) in 1952. His quick (and largely unexplained) promotion to a canonry just two years later caused resentment among some of his colleagues “who found Sydney's effortless friendship with the senior clergy nothing less than an affront to their piety and hard work“.

He had read theology at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge where he still took tutorials and enjoyed dining rights. But, doing so much detective work, and being "bored by administrative duties ... he frequently felt guilty that he was not doing enough for people. In truth, Sidney sometimes wished that he were a better priest." But, as a friend tells him, “You are very good at being a decent human being," even if, as his houseeeper insists, he is “not a practical man". She describes him as "prone to dreaming, hopeless at cooking, vague,untidy and he spoilt his dog." However, he likes to be at the centre of things, and his inquisitive and caring nature makes him a very effective detective. He is "loosely based" on the author's father, the late Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury.

James Runcie (1959 - ) is the Artistic Director of the Bath Literary Festival and author of four other novels. He is also an award-winning film-maker and theatre director and has scripted several films for BBC Television. He was educated at Marlborough College, Trinity Hall College in Cambridge (where he was awarded a first class degree in English) and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. His father was Robert Runcie, the late Archbishop of Canterbury. James Runcie lives in Edinburgh with his wife, daughter and step-daughter.

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (2012)
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death takes its title from the first section of the book, a novel length story (313 pages) about the apparent suicide of a local solicitor. Subsequent, much shorter, stories are concerned with an old woman who dies too conveniently, a jewel theft at a New Year's Eve dinner party, the unexplained death of a jazz promoter's daughter and the real stabbing of an actor playing Julius Caesar. In each case it is Canon Sidney Chambers, helped by his police friend Inspector Geordie Keating (with whom he has a weekly game of backgammon and a pint or two at the Eagle pub in Cambridge, and who keeps asking him for his help), who is needed to solve the crime.

This seems to leave Sidney with little time for pastoral work as vicar of Grantchester. We are told that "He worried about the kind of man that he was becoming. He needed to return to his official duties". But, of course, he doesn't and his parish seems to run along quite comfortably without him. One of the advantages of being a clergyman, he had discovered, "was that you could disappear", although he also tells people that he was "never really off-duty". However, he's certainly away from his base surprisingly often. Quite often he reminds himself "how much he had neglected his calling" - but that does not stop him setting off on new adventures even though crime investigations "forced him to think about life in a manner that was contrary both to his character and his faith. As a priest he was expected to be charitable and think the best of people, tolerating their behaviour and forgiving their sins, but as an amateur sleuth he found that the requirements were the exact opposite. Now his task was to be suspicious, to think less of everybody, suspect his or her motives and trust no one. It was not the Christian way."

Sidney consoles himself with the thought that "as a priest, everything was his business .... There was no part of the human heart that was not his responsibility." So he is always ready to respond to requests for help - although it is the ones that involve him in crime-solving that seem to take up most of his time. It would be interesting (and more credible) to hear more of what else he does. But he has a certain humility which is engaging as when he thinks to himself that "As an ordinand he had imagined the tranquil life-style of a country parson, but now here he was, poking his nose into other people's businesses, involving himself in matters in which he was plainly out of his depth". And he is not afraid to admit that "despite the consolation of faith, the religious life still contained its doubts and loneliness". He can't avoid the question, "Where was God now? .... How could a loving God permit such monumental suffering and what purpose did it serve?" He comes to realise that "the sick and the dying could teach him more than he could ever learn amidst the hurly burly of the everyday". It would be interesting if such issues could be further explored.

Sidney has two women friends to think about, one living in Germany and the other, Amanda, very much present and involved in his detective work, but he seems in no hurry to choose beween them. As he replies to a woman in the street who accosts him with "Need a girl?": "Not at the moment. But thank you for offering." It is Amanda who points out to him that, "As a result of our friendship, I have been part of two criminal investigations, kidnapped and asaulted; all within the space of a single year." She wonders about marrying Sidney but tells him, "You know I would be absolutely hopeless as a clergy wife".

Sidney is an interesting character who inspires confidence so that people will readily confide in him ("My first duty is as a priest. It outweighs all other concerns"), and you can see why the author has been commissioned to write as many as six books about him. But the author's discursive style seems to better match full-length novels rather than short stories so let's hope that future books will take this form, preferably with some chapter divisions to make it easier to read. The characters seem real enough but the situations in which they find themselves are not always equally convincing. When Inspector Keating tells Sidney, that "the most unlikely and unbelievable stories are often the truest", it sounds a bit like special pleading. But Sidney himself is certainly a character worth developing, and I look forward to reading about his future exploits.

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night (2013)
Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night is a collection of six fairly long short stories, set in 1955-1961, including one about the unexpected fall of a Cambridge don from the roof of King's College Chapel, and another about the poisoning of Zafar Ali, Grantchester's finest spin bowler, a story that does get rather bogged down in cricketing detail. And in the last one, it strays near to melodrama when Sidney finds himself involved with spying intrigues in East Germany at a time when the Berlin Wall is just about to be built, but which slightly awkwardly, links back to the man who fell from the roof in the very first story. It is there that he is told that a German priest, working for the government, considered that his "arguments reflected the thinking of a decadent intellectual rather than the mind of a man who spends his time either in prayer with his people."
"That is, I acknowledge, a weakness," Sidney replies. This gentle touch of mischievous humour occurs throughout and makes the whole book fun to read.

The stories seldom fail to hold the interest and all sorts of interesting characters keep emerging, while Sidney himself remains an intriguing figure. Divided, as he is between the need to "be both a man and a Christian", he is lucky indeed to have a willing curate who can do most of the work at his church in Grantchester! No wonder his archdeacon warns him, "I think you should consider whether there is a difference between the man are and the priest you need to become."

Connecting all the stories is Sidney himself and his burgeoning love affair with the German widow, Hildegard Staunton, that gradually progresses throughout. It is she who "worried that his detective work was impeding his career." But then "to take away this sphere of activity would make him a lesser man; less involved, less committed, and less like himself." Sidney himself wondered whether he needed to "divest himself of all his worldly concerns if he was to become a better priest. He should leave behind all perceptions of the senses, and reasonings of the intellect, and enter that cloud of unknowing, that darkness which would, eventually, be illuminated by flashes of light. This was the paradox of faith, the embracing of darkness in order to find light." It is such theological musings that give him depth, but the fact remains that, as a parishioner tells him, "You should spend more time in church rather than poking your nose into other people's business."

At first, we are told, that "Even if he were to marry he was sure that he would make an unsatisfactory husband .... He could listen to the darkest fears of his parishioners and comfort them in their hours of anxiety, but he was not sure that he could change a fuse. He was hopeless with money, finding that he always had more pressing things to do than go to the bank or pay his bills. No, Sydney had always said to himself in the past; marriage was not for him." He knew his close friend Amanda would never marry him. But now there was Hildegard ....

Some of the stories are inevitably more interesting than others, but all make enjoyable reading, so I am left hoping that one day perhaps Sidney Chambers might appear in a single coherent novel.

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil (2014)
Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil is made up of four reasonably long stories.
Sidney, now happily married to Hildegard, remains an intriguing character and his investigations hold the interest throughout. The stories are all the more interesting because of the deeper issues they raise, including the problem of evil, the title of the first story (which is about a serial killer with a grievance against clergy). Sydney has no glib answers but can just comment, "Some people believe that evil is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be encountered and lived through". As he went on to ask in his funeral sermon for a suffocated vicar, "If there is a God, why is there evil? If there is not, why is there good? The mystery of evil was complex upon the basis of a good God, but the mystery of goodness was, he suggested, impossible on the basis of no God."

The first vicar to be murdered may have been a little eccentric but, as Sidney later points out, "Goodness and naivety often go together. The holiest men are often thought simple." But that doesn't explain why he was found dead with the marks of the beast carved on his chest. And the eventual explanation - when it finally comes - is not really all that convincing.

The next victim is a priest described as "a studious hard-working clergyman with skeletal features, a slightly hooked nose, and dark recessed eyes that gave the appearance of never seeing daylight. He was a somewhat tortured man who was perhaps too sensitive to his own flaws, and who took to the bottle when he worried how far he fell short of living in God's image. He felt the cold easily, complained of poor circulation and was well known in clerical circles for greeting friends and neighbours with 'the icy hand of doom'. This was unfortunate because although he had neither small talk nor a sense of humour, preferring books to people, Sidney recognised that Isaiah's heart was in the right place and that his patient, prayerful worship of God and the saving of souls was far more important than easy popularity." I have quoted this at length because it is typical of the realistic yet sympathetic way in which Sidney (and presumably the author) regard the characters (and particularly the clergy) whom he meets. It is the characterisation that brings the stories to life.

In the second story, Female-Nude, Sidney finds himself in the Fitwilliam Museum (the use of real-life Cambridge locations adds much to the book's appeal) where he is understandably distracted by a French girl who suddenly bursts into song before she "undid her for coat to reveal that she was naked underneath". It is then found that a famous painting has disappeared. But with the help of his friend Inspector Keating and dapper art world expert, Basil Bonney, (who tells him, "I don't go to church myself. Everyone's so badly dressed. Have you noticed?") he not only solves the mystery but discovers the difference beween "naked" and "nude".

In the third story, Death by Water, Sidney finds himself playing the part of an older clergyman in a low-budget film - it all seems rather improbable, even if there are entertaining glimpses of what goes on behind the scenes. Then one of the actors gets "accidentally" drowned. Somehow it seems less sad than the subsequent death of Dickens, Sidney's beloved old labrador. But the story-telling remains as entertaining as ever.

By far the most realistic of the stories is the fourth one, Christmas 1963, in which Hildegard is pregnant so Sidney feels all the more involved when a baby is stolen from Addenbrooke's Hospital. It starts, though, with Sydney attending the funeral of C S Lewis in Oxford, making him "determined to enjoy the youth he still had left in him; appreciating each day as it came and counter-balancing the future threat of death by living as vigorously and cheerfully as he could."

He comes alive to us as we share his thoughts and feelings about becoming a father, and it is all told with a gentle sense of humour, as when he tries to explain to his German wife the ins-and-outs of English pantomime and they attend the children's panto Dick Whittington (with Tommy the cat) at the Arts Theatre with its awful pantomime dame: "I've just been shopping in Market Square. It's terrible out there. It was so crowded. Men were rubbing up against me and touching me in all the places they shouldn't. I'm going back again tomorrow. Anyway, boys and girls, mums and dads, ARE YOU HAVING A NICE TIME? We'll have a bit of a sing in a minute. I've asked the orchestra to check their parts. They're a lovely lot of men down there. I like the one with the horn. Anyway, I'm here to see Dick - it's been a long time - and I do love playing with his Tommy ...."
"Blimey, Sydney thought, once our own child is born there's going to be years of this." Then, to his horror, he was picked out by the comic for some audience participation.

With the help of clues from a local doctor,which he is bright enough to pick up, Sidney is able to sort out who took the baby - and then his own baby arrives. It is a story to be recommended.

Sydney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins (2015)

Sydney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sin contains six further stories about Canon Sydney Chambers' sleuthing adventures first in Cambridge then in Ely (where he has been promoted to be archdeacon) in the 1960s. He and his wife Hildegard rejoice in their baby girl, Anna, just a few months old, and he still regularly meets up with his old friend Inspector George Keating.

The first story starts with a stranger (who turns out to a member of a famous string quartet) seeking sanctuary in Grantchester's church, convinced he has murdered his wife - but then her body cannot be found in the hotel bedroom. It develops into a rather implausible tale in which Sidney jokes that it might "even be (made into) a book."
"Or a film," suggested Keating ."Basil Rathbone could play the priestly detective. Or Richard Attenborough."
"Aren't they a bit old for the part?"
"I shouldn't worry." Keating replied. "Knowing my luck Sid James would probably be me."
All this is an in-joke as Sydney Chambers is, in fact, now featured in a TV series - although it is not one that I find very convincing. The author's humour, and understanding of the clergy, come over much more strongly in his writing.

In the second story, Sidney and Hildegard go for a shooting weekend at the unlikely Witchford Hall in the country and find their hostess has a sinister burn on her neck. Has she been subject to violent attacks? There are some nice clerical jokes, as when Sidney changes into his Norfolk jacket for the shoot: "His wife was impressed by his easy style. 'I sometimes think you can wear anything,Sidney.'
'That is one of the benefits of being a clergyman, my darling. 'We are so used to dressing up in all manner of clothing that we learn not to be self-conscious.' "
And there is an amusing tale told by their host, Sir Mark (about a supposed wildly eccentric relative of his who had been duped into marriage and squandered his estate) that is, in fact, the real life story of a one-time owner of Felbrigg Hall in Cromer. It's rather more interesting than the main plot.

The third (and best) of the stories gets off to a promising start: "Orlando Richards had never imagined that he would be killed by a piano falling on his head." But this is what happens right outside right outside Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, where he had been Director of Music. And Sidney (who is now 44) suspects it was no accident. It is good (and much more convincing) to have Sidney back on his home ground where, blessed with "such a good curate I sometimes think my parishioners don't have much need for me", he has time to tackle all the mysteries that come his way. It is, he claims, also true that "for most of the time, he had put church before crime."

Other characters are interesting too, such as Dennis Gaunt (owner of the removals firm that dropped the killer piano) who "likes living with as few possessions as possible. As the philosophers advise. I've been doing a course at the Workers Educational Association." He goes on to explain to Sidney, "Anything could be anything, don't you think? That's what I've been reading about. It's all about perception. We could be here and not here. Life could be a dream and death could be when we wake up." Sidney struggles on to find out more about the falling piano, but he too worries about other things: "He did have too many distractions, he acknowledged" and prayed. "O Lord, make me a better man. Let me think less about myself, and more about others, saving my greatest gratitude for the gift of life that you have given us all ... Help me to become a more loving husband, a better priest, and a kinder man." And he needs to pray too, for Hildegard, preparing for playing at a concert and annoyed at always being left at home, warns him to "change your behaviour" or "I'll leave you". The next page just contains the single sentence, "Bloody hell, Sidney thought to himself." And the next page : "She's going to leave me?" And the next page: 'He felt sick." And the next: "He hardly left the house for the next five days." And the next page: "It drove them all crazy." The odd spacing is very effective.

In the fourth story, Sidney is established in Ely when his old friend Amanda, who at last appears to be getting married, starts to receive poison pen letters. Meanwhile, much to his surprise, the Dean of Ely positively encourages him to do some undercover work, becoming his "eyes and ears" to "keep a discreet eye" on Canon Clough who might have been been paying too much attention to "certain female members of the congregation." In fact, the canon (known to the cathedral cleaners as "the Casanova of the Cloisters") freely confesses to having his own band of "vestal virgins" but explains, "They're like old cars that haven't been out too much. You just need to give them a bit of oil and they soon get going. But it's quite harmless; most of them are barking. You have to be a little mad to spend much time with a priest, don't you think? Anyone who falls for the charms of a clergyman must have a screw loose somewhere." It's not until the next story that he gets his final come-uppance. By then, of course, Sidney has sorted out the poison pen letters.

In the fifth story, a group of schoolboys blow up their school Science Block. AIthough it raises serious questions about child abuse, it fails to convince. And in the sixth, while on a family holiday in Florence when it is flooded, Sidney is accused of the theft of a priceless painting. It's another unlikely plot. Sidney seems at his best (and most interesting) when seen against a clerical background.

The author has his own informative website, and there is a`summary of his life on the Wikipedia site and an interview about his relationship with his parents on The Guardian site.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death cover
The cover suggests the charm of Grantchester, although little of the book is actually set there.
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