Recent grumbles about the dearth of decent heroes in modern fiction will have to stop. I’ve discovered one that lives up to expectations: Sidney Chambers in James Runcie’s Grantchester series.
‘Perfect company in bed’ commented the author of Miss Garnet’s Angel, Salley Vickers. Yes, definitely. And right for Easter too, for these books have a serious moral dimension at the same time as being an easy and enjoyable read.
So far James Runcie has published three books featuring his vicar turned sleuth: The Shadow of Death, The Perils of the Night, and The Problem of Evil, with the next one due to be published this May.
Canon Sidney Chambers is thirty-two and unmarried in the first book; he’s a little confused about the women in his life, apparently unwilling to commit himself. Not so different to most men you might say. But Sidney’s hesitation stems not from self-indulgence but from an endearing uncertainty about doing the right thing. He is a man struggling to live up to the principles of his religion, to love and care for those around him as best he can – whilst being irresistibly drawn into his other career of solving crimes.
For the romantic among us, there’s plenty of love interest around. Not surprising: Sidney’s a highly attractive character, with a gift for kindness and perceptive listening to those who confide in him. Many do. He may not be a perfect vicar but he is a good man.
And he’s not a sissy. Sidney fought in the second world war and we learn in flashbacks of how this has affected him; his character is partly based on James Runcie’s own father, Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was awarded the Military Cross for bravery.
Sidney is generously supplied with all the right acoutrements, friends and background to establish him as the perfect hero in this kind of book: his best friend Inspector Geordie Keating, a splendid sharp-tongued housekeeper Mrs Maguire, a Dostoyevsky-obsessed curate, a labrador named Dickens and a vicarage in the picturesque village of Grantchester on the edge of Cambridge. For this is cosy crime par excellence. Or as James Runcie himself puts it, ‘Father Brown with attitude, Agatha Christie with cathedrals, and Barbara Pym with sex.’
In a recent foray to the wonderfully revamped Foyles in Charing Cross Road, London, I noticed that what seemed like over half the fiction floor was devoted to crime novels. It looks as if we are becoming obsessed by crime – and that it’s here our modern heroes will have to be found.