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.