I have very kindly been given the opportunity by Bloomsbury Publishing to preview the latest offering in the Sidney Chambers mysteries. I must confess that I have not read the first four books (although I may just do so now)–my introduction came via the Grantchester series shown on PBS. This current book is, as the previous books, a collection of six stories, any of which could stand alone, but are linked together by time and theme. The time is 1968. The theme, we are told, is Temptation.
Sidney is a man of God and therein lies the central theme of his character, as he is both–that is, a man, and of God. The first part is by birth and inclination; the second is by choice and vocation. How does Sidney manage this balancing feat between the two somewhat disparate parts? Actually another fictional character, G. K. Chesterton’s (Roman Catholic) Father Brown, did this, to some extent, but in Sidney we have the added factor of being undeniably attractive to, as well as attracted by, women. As a man, he is now married to Hildegard, and father to Anna. He is mindful of this, and is steadfast in his declaration of love for both wife and daughter. As a priest, we see that he is moving forward in his vocation, having advanced from Vicar to Archdeacon. Yet, entanglements loom. At times, Sidney seems to get trapped between his own sense of attraction and his self-expectations, as well as his sense of what befits an Anglican priest.
There are six stories in this current volume: The Dangers of Temptation, Grantchester Meadows, The Trouble with Amanda, The Return, A German Summer, and Love and Duty. The first and sixth titles seem to summarize this part of Sidney’s life journey.
The book starts with a George Eliot quote: “No man is matriculated to the art of life till he has been well tempted.” What follows is a series of episodes starting with Sidney’s Valentine’s Day 46th birthday party. (Several of the attendees figure in subsequent stories in this volume.) The party of family and friends is joined, intrusively, by Barbara Wilkinson, “a bewitching divorcee” from Grantchester. Interesting choice of word, “bewitching”… We continue to May Week at Cambridge, and a search for an heirloom necklace, a process laced with intrigue and tragedy. Summer brings us the tale of what befalls Sidney and Hildegard’s friends, Amanda and Henry. Onward to September and the tale of another couple, Mrs. Maguire and her long-missing husband Ronnie. The visit of Sidney and his family to Hildegard’s native East Germany coincides with the Apollo 11 landing. Finally, close to another of Sidney’s February birthdays, we encounter the continuing saga of Sidney’s former curate, Leonard, now under consideration for a bishopric. As these stories of friends and family evolve, so too does Sidney’s discovery of just what his faith and his family mean to him. To me, the beginning of this book was mostly about Sidney the man. As we (and he) progress, it seems to become increasingly centered on the of God portion of Sidney’s character. The conclusion we reach, along with Sidney, is his remembrance that “In the evening of our life we shall be judged by our loving.”