The Grantchester Mysteries are moral fables in the tradition of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown mixing crime, comedy and social history. The series is set in the Cambridgeshire village of Grantchester and runs from 1953 - 1977.
The principal character is Canon Sidney Chambers, a clergyman-detective named after the great eighteenth and early nineteenth century cleric Sydney Smith. The recipient of many a secret, but always willing to think the best of people, Sidney can go where the police cannot.
I was born in Cambridge in 1959 and am the son of a clergyman so its not hard to work out where the inspiration for this series comes from. I think what is startling is how rapidly and how radically society has changed since the 1950s and I thought it might be interesting to combine changing British social history with murder.
The clergy are told many secrets in the course of their lives, and follow so many rites of passage, most notably birth, marriage and death. They notice a lot more than they let on, and I thought it could be interesting to follow one such cleric; a man who was reluctantly drawn into the world of crime and was then thrown into a series of dilemmas, often involving a conflict between respecting a confidence and telling the truth. Many of the stories concentrate on a moral dilemma; whether it be the revelation (and betrayal) of a secret, the nature of forgiveness, or a troubling conflict of loyalties. The series begins in the 1950s because it gives both writer and reader a chance to think about the consequences of illegality in an age when the death penalty was still in evidence and people were prosecuted for homosexuality.
Sidney Chambers is not gay, but he has friends who are and who are terrified of being found out. Unlike modern times, in which people are all too keen to tell you all about themselves as soon as you meet them, social behaviour in the 1950s was more about tact, discretion, and, if one can use a fantastically old fashioned idea, manners. The idea of asking too many direct questions was considered inordinately rude but, as a detective, this is what Sidney has to do, generating considerable problems with his conscience.
This makes the whole thing sound rather serious which I hope it is not. There are traditional crime motifs, plot turns, twists, and heroes who turn out to be villains. There are not one, but two, female love interests. And there is the harassed local Cambridgeshire policeman, Detective Inspector Geordie Keating, named after a good friend who is often too busy to see me. I hope he appreciates the joke, because there are jokes in these mysteries, and there is a teasing humanity. By the end, I hope to have written a loving portrayal of a man who moves between the world of the spirit and the all too mortal world of the flesh, bicycling from Grantchester to Cambridge and back, attempting to love the unloveable, forgive the sinner, and to lead a decent, good life.
Grantchester is also a major television series for ITV/PBS. It features James Norton as Sidney Chambers, Robson Green as Inspector Keating, Morven Christie as Amanda Kendall, Pheline Rogan as Hildegard Staunton, Al Weaver as Leonard Graham (renamed Leonard Finch in the series) and Tessa Peake-Jones as Mrs Maguire.
A trip to Grantchester is the perfect family day out. It ticks every box of Englishness: the idyllic village setting, the picturesque Church, the possibility of a picnic on the Meadows or a pub lunch (there are four to choose from), followed by a punting trip on the river Cam, cricket on the green and then a slap up tea with strawberries and ice-cream. It's also right next to the University so you can either discover your inner Stephen Fry or happily ignore it because you can lie all
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester.
That's Rupert Brooke, in his poem ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester' written in a Berlin café in 1912, just before the First World War, when he was longing for home. The building is now owned by Jeffrey Archer and the village has a rich literary tradition. In ‘The Reeve's Tale' Chaucer refers to the bridge that connects Grantchester to the neighbouring village of Trumpington; Virginia Woolf, A. A. Milne, E.M Forster, Ludwig Wittgenstein and J.G. Ballard were regulars at The Orchard Tea Garden; and Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were both inspired to write poems while walking on the Meadows. (Plath's ‘Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows'; Hughes's ‘Chaucer' and ‘The Earthenware Head') Today the village of two hundred and fifty houses is home to scores of professors, lecturers and academics – including what is reported to be the highest concentration of Nobel Prize-winners in any village on the planet – alongside the normal mix of residents that you'd expect anywhere in the English countryside.
Grantchester is the perfect location for a mystery series. Aside from its history, the village has numerous exits and entrances. It's closely connected to a town, a University and a railway station with frequent trains to London. There's a river for drowning, a church spire to fall from and a whole variety of garden implements with which to injure enemies. There are regular social gatherings from which villains can arrive and depart almost unseen; and, at the heart of it all, is a priest to usher his parishioners out of this world and into the next.
Sidney Chambers also has that very English accoutrement, a dog, a loveable Labrador called Dickens who will, eventually, one day and long into the future, be replaced by Byron, named after the mad, bad and dangerous to know poet who swam in the river's pool that was subsequently named after him.
Pay a visit and you will discover that the sense of a continuous and very English tradition, is palpable. Dinosaurs once roamed the fields (their dung, coprolite, was found and mined in the nineteenth century). Elizabeth I processed through the village on 5th August 1564, there was an anti-aircraft gun on the meadows in the second world war, and one of the first tracks that made the cult band Pink Floyd famous was Grantchester Meadows (members of the band lived nearby).
It's a place that's proud of its history, so don't ever make the mistake of regarding the inhabitants as picturesque yokels. As Rupert Brooke has it:
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I'm told)
They recognize that guests will be here today and gone tomorrow, but they don't mind as long as you respect the spirit of place. For Grantchester is a semi-sacred spot, of the kind that Shakespeare once called a demi-paradise. You might not want to go that far, but if you eat one of the apples in The Orchard tearooms you might feel, when it really is time to go home, that you too are leaving The Garden of Eden – only the trumpets of the angels are more likely to be car horns.
A lot of people ask me about my father and how he has influenced my writing. Here is an article I wrote for The Daily Telegraph that explains all.
James Runcie is one of the best – Barry Turner, Daily Mail
An undiluted pleasure – Scotsman
At last, an Anglican Father Brown ... Each tale is beautifully crafted and surprising. I hope for many more volumes – A.N. Wilson, Spectator
Totally English, beautifully written, perfectly in period and wryly funny. More, please! – Leslie Geddes Brown, Country Life
The clerical milieu is well rendered as an affectionate eye is cast over post-war England - a perfect accompaniment to a sunny afternoon, a hammock and a glass of Pimm's – Laura Wilson, Guardian
It takes a first-class writer to put together a convincing storyline for such unlikely circumstances. James Runcie does it admirably … He is a good man in an imperfect world and we should welcome him to the ranks of classic detectives – Daily Mail
Runcie is emerging as Grantchester's answer to Alexander McCall Smith. The book brings a dollop of Midsomer Murders to the Church of England, together with a literate charm of its own: civilized entertainment, with dog-collars – Spectator
James Runcie has written the coziest of cozy murder mysteries. Taken individually, each of these clerical whodunits poses a clever puzzle for armchair detectives. Viewed as a collective study of British life as it was lived when Elizabeth II first ascended the throne, these stories present a consistently charming and occasionally cutting commentary on 'a postwar landscape full of industry, promise and concrete –New York Times Book Review
"Runcie's Sidney Chambers books are agreeably unpretentious, yet they ring true. Most of the characters try most of the time to behave well. Some, when they fail and behave badly, are ashamed. This makes them truer to common experience than most crime novels are. Yet in one respect these are very unusual books for our time, because Christianity and the practice of religion are central to Runcie's themes. The function of the dialogue, which rarely seeks to catch the rhythm of common speech, is to explore and examine right and wrong. Runcie and his Sidney Chambers are concerned with souls rather than acts; the effect of the crime on the criminal is the heart of the matter." Allan Massie in The Scotsman
No detective since Father Brown has been more engaging than Canon Sidney Chambers. Perfect company in bed – Salley Vickers