Review – Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night (James Runcie)

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night

James Runcie

ISBN: 1608199517

Not yet available for purchase, but available to be admired on Goodreads.

 

I won an advance reading copy of PotN from Goodreads some time in April and have been cautioned by the back cover not to judge an uncorrected proof too harshly. Fortunately, harsh judgement is not an issue. I liked it.

 

Note: this is a review of a sweet collection of mysteries set in and around Cambridge of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This is, ostensibly, a Sherlock Holmes blog, but my brain’s filing system catalogues all mystery under the Archetype Holmes header, and so this review fits. 

 

Much mystery, caught up in its attempt at edginess, loses itself in gratuitous sex and gore. Edginess has its place, of course, but I’ve grown tired of it. I wanted to take a few steps back from the edge.

 

Sidney Chambers has provided for me a much needed break. I found the reading at once light and weighty, a balance between vibrant, whimsical characters and their brushes with the darker side of human nature. The language is elegant and cerebral without being overbearing, and it fits the period without feeling stilted.

 

The episodic structure of the book – a series of short storied, tied together by a few threads into a loosely-bound whole – threw me off a little at first, but I quickly decided to allow myself one story a day, and the subdivision into manageable chunks became a convenience.

 

What I loved most, though, was the title character, the clerical detective, Canon Sidney Chambers. Much in the tradition of Father Brown, Sidney shows a deep and sensitive understanding of humanity, flaws included, and yet retains a wonderful optimism and innocence, reaching out to touch the sinner without letting himself be touched by the sin. In some ways, he perhaps surpasses Father Brown in realism: in the difficulties of his relationships, his flashes of human jealousy, his worries that his academia or detective work sometimes interferes with his priestly duties. Where moral ambiguity has become the norm for protagonists, Sidney is proof that it is by no means a necessary attribute of a complex, interesting character; I found his uprightness refreshing.

 

My only complaint would be the overabundance of cricket jargon in The Hat Trick, the fourth story in the collection.

Review – Garment of Shadows (Laurie R. King)

I started reading Laurie R. King’s Garment of Shadows the day it came out, and I think I should begin by saying that it has absolutely killed me, not having time to finish it until now. Cliffhanger chapters are one thing when you know you can pick the book up again in an hour or so. Waiting days between readings is torture.

I truly have nothing but praise for this installment of the Mary Russell series. The last several books have gotten very dark, and the last, Pirate King, felt like an overreaction to that, trying to slingshot the series back into whimsy. Not that there’s anything wrong with whimsy, but it was a bit jarring to go from crazy cultists, unexpected relatives, family drama, death, and madness to… “So, they’re pirates. Only, they’re not real pirates, but they are real pirates, and they’re playing pirates, but they’re playing pretend pirates that are captured by pirates. Oh, and Sherlock Holmes.” That is to say, too much too fast.

Garment of Shadows made up for that. It was fun (in an intense, terrifying way), exciting, not too bleak (except in all the right places), and not the least bit silly.

So, to recap: Russell wakes up somewhere in Morocco with soldiers on her tail, a bandage on her head, and no memories at all. The country is teetering on the brink of outright chaos. Old friends return unexpectedly, accompanied by political intrigue and a mute child, and the fates of nations hang on knowledge buried somewhere in Russell’s battered brain.

Pretty standard fare for King.

Now, I will admit that I cringed when I read the synopsis and was whacked in the face with the word “amnesia.” Being a frequenter of several fanfiction sites and familiar with just about every possible amnesia plot bunny, I did momentarily wonder whether it was a joke.

But, diehard fan that I am, I was still at Barnes & Noble the moment they opened on 4 September. It is very difficult to find someone to ring up your purchase at nine in the morning. But moving on…

The amnesia works. Most of the Mary Russell books work tolerably well as stand-alone pieces, though my OCD makes it difficult for me to read anything in anything but chronological order. Garment of Shadows, though, is at least partly the story of Russell getting to know herself, which makes it a much more accessible volume than, say, Justice Hall, which is so much better if you already know the characters. I do know the characters, but it’s been a while since I finished Pirate King, and it was very good to have a sort of reintroduction to Russell. The character is so deep and complex that the reader tends to forget things about her, and it was nice to be reminded just why I like her so much in the first place.

On the subject of characters, I have to address Holmes. I think the controversial Holmes is the reason so many Holmesians are put off by the series, but in my opinion, those are the ones who never really understood Holmes to begin with. King’s Holmes is certainly not Doyle’s Holmes; he is older and wiser, more cautious, and we get to see him not from the perspective of an intellectual inferior, but of an intellectual equal. (See The Detective’s Perspective.) More than that, though, we get to see the inner Holmes a lot more, with some segments of the book coming (ostensibly) from an omniscient third-person narrator. That Holmes is someone who is occasionally plagued by “emotional grit” in his thinking machine. And this is so very, very true to the Great Detective of Victorian London. He never was cold or apathetic. Holmes has always loved humanity. He could have exercised his genius in nearly any field, but he chose one that would benefit mankind. Forgive the nerdy reference but, like a Vulcan, Holmes is not devoid of emotion, merely capable of exercising immense control over himself. King captures that brilliantly. Her Holmes knows how to love and how to make sacrifices for the people he has taken it upon himself to protect.

No spoilers, though.

We get some wonderful Russell-not-standing-for-Holmes’-crap moments and some lovely Holmes-not-standing-for-Russell’s-crap moments, and it’s all just spectacular.

That brings me to the setting. I’ve never been to Morocco, but I almost feel now as though I had. There is a remarkable truth and sensitivity in King’s descriptions, providing a depth to the setting that almost makes it into its own character. I can almost smell the mint tea. I really have no way of knowing how accurate any of it is, but truth is something separate, and it certainly is true.

I cannot wait to lose myself in Russell’s world again next time.