'Grantchester,' Sidney Chambers and the problem of good books vs. good TV

'Grantchester,' Sidney Chambers and the problem of good books vs. good TV
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I've found a great series of detective stories , thanks to Channel 11 (PBS). They're the "Grantchester" stories by James Runcie (Bloomsbury Books, 2012-2015).

I first discovered the main character, Canon Sidney Chambers, and his cohorts by watching the early stories on Channel 11 earlier this year. I was captivated by the characters and the wonderful scenery; it was the most apt "Masterpiece Mystery" programming in a long time. I thought that would be it until I saw a copy of "Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death" at a bookstore.

I read it, of course. The stories had the same plots as what I'd seen on TV, but they had so much more rich, telling detail that I was captivated all over again.

Sidney, the Church of England vicar of the small English town of Grantchester, is a sort of Anglican version of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown -- but without the dithering quality of Chesterton's Roman Catholic priest.

Well, without the dithering in detection or faith, anyway. When it comes to his "personal life," more open in the Church of England, that may be where the true mysteries lie. Family matters and women play large parts in the early stories; Sidney's life ties each book's short cases together.

Sidney gets involved in detection to help out his friend, Inspector Geordie Keating of the Cambridge police. Their weekly meetings in a local pub are comforting interludes in each story -- for the scenery and friendship as much as for the reviews of where the story/case is at that time.

The university and town of Cambridge, so near to Grantchester that Sidney can bicycle to and from duties at one of the colleges, play leading roles as settings -- I could almost call them characters in themselves. Here is how Runcie sets the scene early in the title story of "Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night" (Bloomsbury Books, 2013):

"It was the 8th of January 1955. The distant town of Cambridge looked almost two-dimensional under the moon's wily enchantment, and the silhouettes of college buildings were etched against the darkening sky like illustrations for a children's fairytale. Sidney imagined princesses locked in towers, knights leaving on dangerous quests through forests, and wood-cutters bringing supplies to stoke the fires of great medieval halls. The River Cam was stilled in time, its waters frozen and embedded with fallen branches, scattered twigs and dead leaves. The snow that settled on Clare Bridge made the decoration of its parapet rails look like fourteen snowballs that had been left by a giant standing astride a model of an English university. Set back and to the south, across whitened grass, the magnesian limestone that comprised the fabric of King's College Chapel was given extra luminance by the snow that gathered on the roof and pinnacled standards of its turrets. Wind gusted round the edges of the building, throwing white flurries against the mouldings and mullions of the windows. The stained glass was darkened, as if waiting for something to happen -- a new Reformation perhaps, an air raid, or even the end of the world."

The case that develops centers on King's College Chapel, but surely you knew that now that Runcie has you thinking so deeply about it.

Theology, classical music, and great art appear in the stories, and Runcie writes beautifully about them, balancing showing what he needs to show with explanations he treats like reminders. He trusts his readers to be intellectually active like Sidney himself.

For such a new discovery, I feel a bit rushed to name "the Sidney books" (as I already call them) Sustaining Books. But I'll take that chance. I've lent one out, and I'm eagerly awaiting its return so that I can re-read it.

As I've read the books whose stories I haven't seen yet on TV, I have loved using Runcie's rich descriptions to picture just where each event is. I look forward to future "Masterpiece Mystery" episodes of "Grantchester," as the TV series is called. (I suppose the "Sidney Chambers and" construction is too long for TV listings.)

I've finished the fourth of the books, "Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins" -- and the Facebook page mentions that there are six planned for the series.   I shall forgive Runcie for not writing more of them... I shall have to work on that.

For more fun with words, stop by the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.

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  • Last time I took your advice I got hooked on M.C. Beaton and Hamish MacBeth. Here I go again.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thanks for remembering Beaton (and Hamish) this long. I'm glad you enjoyed them, and I think you'll enjoy Runcie (and Sidney) too. Remember, there are only four books so far, only six planned. I think you'll find yourself wanting to slow down in the fourth one, as I did.

  • I keep trying to remember to watch the good shows and I end up day dreaming and sewing. I shall try harder!

  • In reply to Kathy Mathews:

    That's OK, Kathy. The books are less time-sensitive than the shows, and deeper, too. Meanwhile, I shall try to keep up my mending (which is about as far as my own sewing goes).

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