If you're in the market for gritty, realistic crime novels then skip this post now. If, on the other hand, you relish unconventional sleuths, civilised, period settings, mysteries whose raison d'être is character rather than plot, then the books I'm talking about today should suit nicely.
Speaking from Among the Bones is the fifth in Alan Bradley's very lively, highly original series set in an English village in the 1950s, centred around his eleven-year-old amateur chemist, expert in poisons and eagle-eyed investigator, Flavia de Luce. Living with her father and sisters in their crumbling ancestral home Buckshaw, the precocious Flavia - who has inherited her Great Uncle Tarquin's chemistry laboratory and has an extensive knowledge of most topics, whether scientific or otherwise - uses her powers of observation and ingenuity to get to the bottom of all sorts of goings-on in Bishop's Lacey. In this latest episode of her adventures, the church organist is found murdered at the same time as the tomb of St. Tancred is being excavated and the saint's remains exhumed, her family's financial worries deepen, and the drama of her home life continues to the very last page.
James Runcie's 'detective' Sidney Chambers is a man of the cloth, of a type with Kenneth More* in Genevieve, and the owner of a black Labrador called Dickens (so who could resist?), and he's back in the second in a planned series of six books which will take him from the 1950s to 1981. On the subject of chronology for a moment, I love the novelist's ability to either stop time - Flavia has been eleven since the books began and she has packed a great deal into that 'year' - or alter its speed for their convenience, e.g. Sidney's daily existence (which often engages him with real events) unfolds at one speed, while other aspects of his life, most notably his romantic liaisons, are conveniently stalled or drawn out over implausibly long periods! But to get back to the book itself, Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night is a series of six interlocking stories in which Sidney, as vicar of Grantchester and fellow of Corpus Christi College Cambridge, helps his great friend Inspector Geordie Keating solve various crimes concerning his parishioners and college associates. As ever, Sidney's conscience guides him, but as he strives to "put his acquired identity, as a man of faith, above his own essential nature," he is faced with difficult decisions. It is these moral dilemmas, Sidney's wisdom and humanity, and his *"mixture of decency and optimism" which are so appealing, and which make these novels a great pleasure to read.
Whether you are in the mood for a book with brio (Flavia) or something a little more reflective (Sidney), both series are charming and really rather fun.