Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love

Written by James Runcie

Review written by Isabelle George

Isabelle George is a book reviewer and travel writer

Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love
Bloomsbury Publishing
RRP: £14.99
Released: May 04, 2017

The spring of 1971 brings returning Anglican clergyman and part-time sleuth Sidney Chambers a new challenge. Whilst out walking in the bluebell woods with his daughter Anna and pet dog, they stumble upon the body of a dead man. Let the sleuthing begin.

The book comprises six episodes of roughly equal length at about fifty pages each and they cover a time frame of five years. The first episode is encircled by lyrical descriptions of English country flowers - I did not know there were so many flowers in the catalogue of horticulture - and it speaks of a time when these riches abounded in the fields and hedgerows and were known to country dwellers. Anna has that old Victorian favourite, a flower press, which is not something many modern children would be familiar with. The story revolves around love taken to its ultimate extreme and I thought this might foreshadow the ‘persistence of love’ in other forms but it is a difficult metaphor to sustain.

Another story concerns the theft of a valuable book – perhaps a reflection of love in its many forms – for people, for objects, for history. One character loves a painting, but for itself or for its monetary worth? And there is a story of a lost youth and the complications of love mixed with frustration, anger and relief when he is found.

Other chapters are less clear: an examination of the unsatisfactory laws concerning rape in the early 1970s and the machinations of art dealers with complex motives. These are not crime stories but exposés of ambivalence.

There is an unexpected final chapter and it seems clear throughout the book that the author is more concerned with Sidney Chambers and his personality and dilemmas than with the crimes he is called upon to investigate. In fact I found it necessary to maintain a suspension of disbelief in accepting that a man with a serious career moving through the hierarchy of the Church of England should also be a regular accredited crime solver and that this was accepted by his clerical colleagues as a known side line to his ‘day job’.

The writing is a pleasure to read and the situations described leap off the page. The setting in its period is impeccable and completely convincing. As a contemporary of Anna I found the references to political events, social mores, pop songs, clothes and the food of the time resonated on every level and it acted as a reminder of my own childhood at that time.

The passages of conversation are refreshingly clear as they are not cluttered with endless ‘he said, she said’s and, provided you have the right interlocutor from the start, it is possible to follow pages of alternate speakers without checking which person is speaking. It is a debt we owe to punctuation that this can give such life to the conversations as they flow as swiftly and clearly as they would in reality.

There are also some impassioned passages of description such as the flowers in “The Bluebell Wood” and of Brighton in “The Long-Hot Summer”. In the latter Sidney goes to Brighton and there are seven pages of almost stream of consciousness description of student, anti-establishment sights of the town which I found 'unputdownable'. Each sentence rang more strongly than the last and the whole made for a breathless and impressive ride through the period.

It is not possible in the length of these individual stories to host a crowd of suspects or develop peripheral characters, but instead they pose interesting questions. In the canon of hard hearted cops, twisted criminals and dark settings this is a delightful and more thought provoking antidote which I am sure is destined to run on long beyond this sixth volume.


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