The U.K.’s newest mystery hit from ITV makes its first U.S. appearance on Masterpiece in six episodes starting January 18. With its winning combination of a delightful and appealing amateur sleuth, Anglican priest Sidney Chambers (James Norton, “Mr. Turner,” “Death Comes to Pemberley”), articulate writing, engaging mysteries to solve, and charming village locations, “Grantchester” will soon become a favorite, particularly to the lovers of the English “cozy” style of mystery.
Set in the 1950s in the Cambridgeshire village of Grantchester, the series finds the adorable vicar at the center of local crimes and murders that seem to cry out for his help. In the first episode, for example, the mistress of an apparent suicide victim asks the vicar to help prove that her lover was murdered.
Before becoming a priest, Sidney had firsthand experience with death, when he fought in World War II as a member of the Scots Guards. Yet, despite his recurrent flashbacks and nightmares, he maintains an optimistic and cheerful attitude about the inner souls of his parishioners and others with whom he comes into contact. Not that he can’t spot the liars and the cheats.
Our vicar has a cranky ally in Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). Although Geordie is initially reluctant to take Sidney seriously, the two first form an uneasy alliance as Geordie realizes that people warm up to the priest’s informal and kind inquiries, while they are uncomfortable talking to the police. A friendship is formed over the course of the series, with the two enjoying the occasional beer and backgammon game at the local pub.
“Grantchester” is superficially reminiscent of the British “Father Brown” TV series, based on the stories of G.K. Chesterton, in which a British Catholic priest solves mysteries. But as an Anglican, as opposed to a Catholic, Sidney may, and does, have a healthy attraction to women, and they reciprocate. Amanda Kendall (Morven Christie, “Case Histories”), a wealthy society girl, seems to be in love with him, as he is with her. Yet, her family has other plans for her. In the first episode, Sidney becomes attracted to Hildegard Staunton (Pheline Roggan), a smoldering young German widow.
The main character has depth, in part, because of his provenance. James Runcie, author of the “Grantchester Mysteries,” drew Sidney after Runcie’s father, who was a war hero, compassionate priest and served as Archbishop of Canterbury. The supporting cast also adds dimension and humor to the series. Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones, “Poirot”) is Chambers' bossy and opinionated housekeeper. Leonard Finch (Al Weaver, “Sherlock”) is Chambers' endearingly naïve and apparently gay curate.
Although I enjoy hard-boiled detective stories, there is something special about the British cozy mystery, which reached its golden age in the 1920s and 1930s. Most of the cozies are set in a quaint upper class town, village, or country house. Gore and blood are kept to a minimum. There is a limited number of well-dressed, intelligent, sane or merely eccentric suspects. And if you read or watch very carefully, the murderer could become apparent. Robert Knox, a member of the Detection Club that included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and G.K. Chesterton, actually codified the rules of the cozy in 1929:
1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman [sic] must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
9. The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
These “Grantchester” episodes were a great success when they aired in the U.K., so a second series has been already commissioned. With the delightful Sidney Chambers as the sleuth with a deep moral center, the sophisticated scripts, challenging mysteries to solve and verdant 1950s English village settings, “Grantchester” will, I’m sure, be savored by a wide U.S. audience.
Emily S. Mendel
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