Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love

Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love

by James Runcie


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781632867957
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 05/23/2017
Series: Grantchester
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 348,409
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

James Runcie is an award-winning filmmaker and the author of eight novels. Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death, the first in the Grantchester Mysteries series, was published in 2012, soon followed by Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night, Sidney Chambers and The Problem of Evil, and Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins. In November 2014, PBS began airing Grantchester, a primetime series starring James Norton as Sidney Chambers. James Runcie lives in London and Edinburgh.

Read an Excerpt

Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love

The Grantchester Mysteries


Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Copyright © 2017 James Runcie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63286-794-0


The Bluebell Wood

Saturday 8 May, 1971

May was Sidney's best-loved month. After an overture of daffodils and tulips, the summer orchestra tuned to the sound of blackbirds, wood pigeons and the returning swifts. Each day outpaced its predecessor with new provision: an acceleration of green, a stretching light. The smell of wild garlic rose up in the hedgebanks. Warmth returned, and Hildegard served up the first asparagus of the year, with salmon, early peas, mint and new potatoes, followed by Sidney's favourite fruit: rhubarb, poached with ginger and honey.

Now aged seven and a half, Anna was just finishing her first year of Junior School and she was in the middle of a wild-flower project inspired by W. Keble Martin's Concise British Flora in Colour. Two years before, she had written to the author for advice, and the ninety-year-old priest had replied on a postcard to say that the natural world offered endless discovery, infinite possibilities. If she learned to appreciate the landscape around her then she would never be bored or lonely. Curiosity would keep her young.

Father and daughter were out walking through Nine Acre Wood by the River Ouse with Byron, their beloved Labrador, alongside them. They ambled past the oak and ash trees, tall by a stream edged with swathes of ramsons and marsh marigolds, then went on through high cow parsley and flowering crab apple until they reached a sunlit clearing filled with early wood violets, herb Robert, meadow buttercups and sanicle.

This was a time for simple pleasures; a father, a lively young daughter and their dog out together in the countryside. A fringe had just been cut into Anna's short blonde hair and she was dressed tomboyishly, in dungarees over a long-sleeved yellow T-shirt. She put the flowers she had gathered in a hessian shopping bag: pink campion, ragged Robin, shepherd's-purse and germander speedwell. She liked getting home and making arrangements in glasses of water and painting them before putting them in her new press. Sometimes she was hesitant about doing so. She didn't like the flowers dying sooner than they needed to.

They stopped to rest, taking in the next vista and removing the sticky willy that had attached itself to their legs. They laughed when Byron attempted to chase a squirrel up a tree. He was so busy looking up that he ran straight into the trunk.

It was only when they were checking and consoling him that they noticed a strange shape under a group of silver birch ahead. By the stream, and next to a clump of monkshood and a swathe of bluebells that had yet to come into full flower, was the body of a man. He was not lying in the comfortable arrangement of someone asleep or at rest but the skewed position of a person who had either suffered a heart attack or been felled by an assailant. He lay on his front, the bulk of his face hidden by an Australian bush hat, and he was wearing a well-worn anorak, jeans and hiking boots. A long grey ponytail, tied with an elastic band, stretched across his right shoulder and by his gloved hands (Gloves, Sidney thought, in May?) lay a basket of wild flowers.

'Is he dead, Daddy?'

'He might be sleeping.'

'I think he's dead.'

'Stay back, darling.'

'I want to see him.'

Sidney knelt down and checked for signs of life. There were none.

'What are we going to do?' Anna asked.

'The first thing is to pray for him.'

'So he is dead?'

'I am afraid so.'

'I'm scared.'

'Don't be.'

'Is he in heaven?'

'I don't know.'

'Aren't you supposed to know?'

Any words spoken in the silence seemed an affront to the dead.

Sidney stretched out his left arm and gathered his daughter to him. She knelt down beside him, put her hands together and closed her eyes.

Her father prayed: 'Go forth upon thy journey from this world, O Christian soul, in the name of God the Father Almighty who created thee; in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for thee; in the name of the Holy Spirit who strengthened thee; in communion with the blessed saints, and aided by angels and archangels, and all the armies of the heavenly host. May thy portion this day be in peace, and thy dwelling in the heavenly Jerusalem. Amen.'

Sidney turned to his daughter. 'We need to fetch help. Let's see if we can go back to the road and find a phone box.'

'Do you know who he is, Daddy?'

The man seemed familiar but Sidney couldn't quite place him. Just before he walked away, he remembered the gloves and looked at the basket the man had been carrying. It contained blue drifts of wolfsbane interspersed with old man's beard, sun spurge, racemes of yellow laburnum, black bryony, corncockle, foxgloves and cuckoo pint. There was a small bunch of creamy yellow euphonium-shaped flowers with deep purple-netted veins and broad leaves with white sticky hairs. Sidney realised it must be henbane, part of the deadly nightshade family, and asked himself one perplexing question: why were all the plants the man had been gathering poisonous?

His old friend and colleague, Inspector Keating, arrived within the hour. 'Take Anna and the dog home,' he said. 'This is no place for a child.'

Sidney had tried to distract his daughter by collecting more wild flowers as they waited near the roadside, but it was hard to think of anything other than the drama of the dead man. He wondered how often she would ask him about the discovery of the body and whether he could downplay the situation, concentrating on other matters, pretending nothing unusual had happened in the hope that Anna was still so young that she might one day think the whole thing had been a dream.

When they got home and told Hildegard, all in a rush so that it was hard to take in, Anna asked again if the man would go to heaven and what it was like.

'It's a place without fear, my darling,' said Sidney, 'where people who have worried so much in life find a happiness that they had never been able to imagine.'

'Why can't they? If they could imagine it, wouldn't more people want to go there?'

Although it was possible the man had died from natural causes, and there was probably a good enough reason for the plants he had been gathering, Sidney could not help but brood on the nature of fate, the chance of discovery and the possible sequence of events that had led up to that moment. He went to his study where he began to pray, seeking some kind of guidance, the beginning of understanding. Was it a sin to be so suspicious so frequently, or was he using the natural intuition that God had given him? Was his role as an accidental detective making him less loving and less effective as a priest?

Byron slept under the kitchen table as Hildegard tried to distract their daughter from what she had seen with cooking and baking. She taught Anna how to bake Leipziger Lerche, the family's favourite German cupcake. Sidney referred to them as 'posh Bakewell tarts' and they cooked them in the same way Hildegard's mother had always done, roasting the almonds in the oven before wrapping them in a towel and bashing them to bits with a rolling pin. Anna helped to fold, knead and roll out the pastry before cutting it out and lining the special moulds they had brought back from their last trip to Germany. She placed a little slip of marzipan and a dollop of apricot jam in the bottom of each case and her mother let her ladle in scoops of the filling. Hildegard then re-rolled the remaining pastry and cut it into narrow lengths. Anna laid two strips into a cross on the top of each filled case, creating a partial lid, before they were put in the oven for twenty minutes. As the buns baked, Hildegard went over to the piano in the drawing room and made up songs with her daughter. Sidney smiled as he watched how lovingly and cleverly his wife distracted Anna from the memory of the dead body under a tree.

That night he tucked his daughter in. He sat on the edge of the bed, finding room amidst the dolls, teddies and knitted animals. Anna sniffed at her special little rabbit as her father read from Tom's Midnight Garden. They had reached that part of the story where the hero can no longer find his dream garden and his friend Hatty has disappeared. What is real and who are the ghosts? Anna asked. Was the man they had found today already a ghost?

Outside it began to rain. Sidney could not help but feel responsible for bringing Anna's childhood closer to an end with the first sight of a dead body. When they reached the closing of the chapter, and Anna was about to snuggle down to sleep, she stopped to listen to the rain against the hard dark glass.

'Look, Daddy,' she said, 'the windows are crying.'

Two days later Inspector Keating came up to Ely for a couple of pints in the Prince Albert. The dead man had been identified as Lenny Goddard, a local folk-singer, poet, forager, painter, decorator, real-ale drinker, knife sharpener and odd-job man. He lived on a houseboat on the Great Ouse, and he was married to one of Sidney's former parishioners.

'Stella Goddard. She says you know her.'

'I do, now you come to mention it. I think she's his third wife. She must be quite a bit younger than Lenny. She used to be a folk-singer too. I must have heard them sing together at some point, but it was in pubs or at summer parties when I was probably concentrating on something else. I thought I'd seen him before but I just didn't recognise him. He's aged quite badly.'

'Well, now he's died quite badly. I didn't know you were such a folkie. You're normally more of a jazz man.'

'I don't mind the odd ballad. I just think you need to watch out when they put their fingers over one ear.'

'Or poison in each other's stomachs.'

'You are suspicious?'

'I know you are. You mentioned the flowers he was gathering.

We've had them checked and you're right. There's enough there to kill a whole village.'

'So I suppose you'd like me to ask a few questions, Geordie?'

'Word will get round. People will come and express their sympathy. It's been a horrible thing for Anna, a shocking discovery. You must be perplexed.'

'I am.'

'You can't understand it. You'll have to go and see the widow, and perhaps some of the people closest to Lenny. They'll be upset. You'll be upset. Things will come out. You know the drill.'

Sidney went first to Anna's school to tell them what had happened and ask them to make allowances if she behaved a little oddly in the coming days. Her form teacher, Tom Tranton, was a small and portly botanist who had instigated the annual tradition of the Junior School wild-flower project and he affectionately referred to his pupils as 'the seedlings'. He sported a pair of dark-green corduroy trousers and a mustard-coloured pullover that looked as if it hadn't been taken off since 1954. This was worn under an old tweed jacket with so many rips and tears that he often joked that he slept outdoors. ('I've just come from the hedge! Woke up next to a lovely little grasshopper. We had quite a conversation. They do love a natter.')

Like a primary-school Keble Martin, Tom Tranton was famous amongst his former pupils for meticulous botanical drawings on the blackboard that displayed plant life and the process of photosynthesis. Everyone thought it a shame when he wiped the board clean.

'That is nature for you, boys and girls. So much of life disappears in the winter. But it all comes back in the spring. Remember that. There may be death, but there is also life. Always.'

As a not-so-secret atheist, Tranton held his prayer book upside down in chapel as a tribute to Darwin, and was keen to tell his pupils that all human beings, no matter what their status, were made up of the same constituent elements.

'Even the Archbishop of Canterbury,' he insisted, 'is sixty per cent water.'

Born in 1910, he was now teaching the grandchildren of his first pupils and he had introduced Lenny Goddard to botany in the late 1930s.

'I showed him how to dig up horseradish; even though it used to be illegal to do that round here. That boy was a natural chemist.'

Sidney asked how easy it would be to make poison from the flowers Lenny had been collecting.

'I thought you were here to talk about Anna?'

'I might as well kill two birds with one stone.'

'You know that's not technically possible, don't you?'

'Could you answer my question?'

Tranton was unperturbed. 'Monkshood is one of the most poisonous plants in the country. Henbane contains toxic tropane alkaloids that can dampen the nervous system and cause paralysis. It's quite easy to cause a lot of damage if you know your chemistry. But it takes a bit of work to kill someone.'

'And would Lenny Goddard be capable of that?'

'I should say so. But it's not in his nature. He was a gentle soul. Popular too. I can't imagine him having any enemies, if you're thinking along those lines. His only vice was that he was too easily led astray.'

'Might he have been gathering them for someone else to make the poison on his behalf?'

'You are ascribing very malign intentions to the man, Mr Chambers. Perhaps the flowers were intended as decoration, or for something entirely different?'

'It seems an odd selection.'

'Lenny Goddard was not the type of man to go round poisoning people. He was a folk-singer and a bit of a hippy. I can't imagine anyone wanting to harm him, or him wanting to hurt anyone else for that matter.'

'Then why those flowers?'

'Perhaps you'd better ask his wife.'

'Do you know something I don't, Tom?'

'Rather a lot, probably. Is there anything specific you have in mind?'

The Goddards' houseboat was moored south of Ely, on the edge of Wicken Fen, at Pope's Corner. Lenny had taken it out of the water to re-blacken the hull after an eel had wrapped itself around the bow's thruster tube. Removed from the river, the boat looked as if it too was in the middle of a post-mortem.

Sidney wondered if the sense of absence could spread through a boat as quickly as it could fill a house. He told Lenny's widow that he had come to listen and to offer any support he could. He spoke to her about the pain of loss; that no matter how much we might fear or anticipate death, its finality always silenced us and reminded us of our own mortality. Grief could not be rushed. Attention had to be paid.

As Stella Goddard made him a cup of tea, Sidney surveyed the possessions that must have belonged to the dead man – guitars, books, sheet music, clothes hanging out to dry, a display of wild flowers, a half-finished painting of a sunset, Tupperware boxes filled with herbs, and a hookah pipe on the table. There was a dog bowl and three cans of Pedigree Chum, but no sign of an animal on deck.

Stella was smaller than he had remembered, slighter, with paler skin and darker hair, and brown eyes that could soon spark up into argument. She wore a floral blouse with a long denim skirt. It was functional clothing meant for a life on the water, her only concession to fashion being the brown woven-leather espadrille wedges, chosen to give her extra height.

'I've often wondered what it might be like to live on a boat,' said Sidney.

'It's harder work than anyone thinks it is. But once you're used to it you can't imagine living any other way. I'm sorry that you and your daughter discovered the body. I was on a trip downriver. Is she all right?'

'That's kind of you to think of her at a time like this. It's hard to tell. I'm never quite sure what's going on in her head, even though she's only seven.'

'Little girls like their secrets.'

'Have you thought about the funeral? Is there anything I can do?'

'We want a private cremation, and then the ashes scattered in the bluebell wood where he was found. It was his favourite place. I've been thinking a little bit about it. It's almost ironic. Perhaps Lenny had an instinctive fear that he was going to die and went there on purpose?'

'Was he worried about his health?'

'It was bad enough without him worrying about it,' Stella replied. 'Still, it's strange ...'

'I'm sorry. It's impossible to define a loss at first. I suppose that's why we use the word.'

'Lost to decide what to think or do? Lost for something to say? There doesn't seem much point in anything any more. I like to think of him with a smile on his face amidst the wild flowers. Sometimes we used to go out at dawn with the dew on the grass and dance barefoot. Lenny always said that he liked the way I moved. When I was little I wanted to be a ballet dancer.'

'But you didn't become one?'


Excerpted from Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love by JAMES RUNCIE. Copyright © 2017 James Runcie. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Bluebell Wood, 1,
Authenticity, 43,
Insufficient Evidence, 102,
Ex Libris, 153,
The Long Hot Summer, 212,
The Persistence of Love, 267,

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Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Jani8 More than 1 year ago
This is the last book of the series about Sidney Chambers and I wish it weren’t. I have enjoyed all the prior books. Mr. Runcie has an elegant style of writing that is thought provoking, challenging as well as humorous at times. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading, but I cried through the whole last story. That doesn’t happen to me very often. I think he left the conclusion open in case he decides he needs to write more Sidney stories. I hope he does. This is truly a beautiful book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Please, Mr. Runcie, keep writing!