As fans of the PBS mystery series “Grantchester” surely know by now, the Rev. Sidney Chambers’s faraway look will soon be far away indeed. James Norton, the actor playing that hunky he-man of the cloth, is leaving the cast. The show will go on, though, in the same murder-plagued Cambridgeshire village and with the same supporting cast — plus a new vicar, played of course by a different actor, Tom Brittney. Whether Brittney will deploy a faraway look of his own — on Sidney’s face it signifies that he’s just intuited the solution to that episode’s mystery — will be revealed when “Grantchester” returns for its fourth season in July.
How will such a drastic change affect the show? It’s hard to imagine another actor with Norton’s knack for embodying the series’s underlying theme: how a clergyman handles the tension between the spirit and the flesh. On the other hand, TV shows tend to lose their fizz by the time season four rolls around. So perhaps a new vicar will be just the tonic “Grantchester” needs.
While we wait, James Runcie, author of the short-story collections on which the series is based, has given us an engaging and witty prequel: a novel called “The Road to Grantchester,” which fills in Sidney’s background and elaborates on his tangled relationship with Amanda Kendall. Though Runcie himself is a layman, he could hardly be better placed to depict the life of a British clergyman; his father was archbishop of Canterbury.
In “The Road to Grantchester” Runcie zips through Sidney’s early years — including his collegiate antics with his Cambridge classmate and best friend, Robert Kendall (Amanda’s brother) — to focus on his World War II service with the Scots Guards and its aftermath. (Though not Scottish, Sidney is following in the footsteps of his physician-father, who was a medical officer with the Guards in World War I.) Robert enlisted with the Guards, too, and the two friends were inseparable until, as we saw in a flashback during Season One of “Grantchester,” Robert was shot dead in Sidney’s presence. The loss not only devastated Robert’s parents, his sister and Sidney himself, but it also saddened virtually everyone who knew Robert, a golden boy from whom much was expected.
Runcie excels at evoking the look and feel of warfare. “This is how it is,” he writes about British infantrymen, “the oscillation between boredom and terror; soldiers oiling their Tommy guns even when they are already oiled, because there is little else to do.” And with the Guards pinned down by German shellfire one Christmas Eve, Sidney watches Robert see to his own needs in an innovative way: “His eyes are red-rimmed, and raw chilblains cover his knuckles. His lips are dry. He has a little tin of peas. He takes them out one by one and crushes them against his lips to ease the chapping.”
In addition to Robert, Sidney relies on another friend from his college years, Freddie Hawthorne, a gay actor whose campy observations provide comic relief as when, after the war is over, he comments on Sidney’s decision to take holy orders. “You’re such a loss to the theatre,” he says. “It gives you all the delights of not having to do a proper job without the tedious business of faith.”
Freddie’s love life sets the stage for Sidney’s first foray into crime-solving, but that mystery and Sidney’s sleuthing are pretty routine. Far more momentous is a surprise that Runcie springs toward the end of the novel. Its effect is to clear up the somewhat murky business of why Amanda and Sidney’s mutual attraction took them only so far. It’s not just that Sidney’s family occupied a social rung beneath her own, or his vocation — also contributing was something that Sidney had on his conscience, which must be left for the reader to discover.
“The Road to Grantchester” should work fine even for those who have never laid eyes on “Grantchester” the TV series. And for those who have watched, “The Road” casts the show’s first three seasons in a disturbing but satisfying new light. One can hardly ask more from a tie-in novel.
Dennis Drabelle is a former contributing editor of Book World.
By James Runcie
336 pp. $28