Born in Cambridge in 1959, James Runcie was educated at Marlborough College, Cambridge University and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, James has worked at Sadler’s Wells, The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Arts Council and, for a long period, at the BBC.
James’ prolific work for television includes the award-winning Miss Pym’s Day Out and Ten Days That Made the Queen. He has been appointed as Artistic Director of Bath Literature Festival. James has returned to Scotland after twenty years and now lives in Edinburgh with his wife and two daughters.
In the early afternoon of Christmas Eve,1953, a gaunt man in his late thirties walked into Grantchester church, sat down on the floor in front of the altar and refused to leave. He had murdered his wife, he said. Now he was claiming sanctuary.
The vicar, Canon Sidney Chambers, was already behind on his Christmas duties and was unprepared for the fresh hell of such a revelation. He had yet to begin his sermon, there were visits to the sick, presents to buy (let alone wrap) and the church roof had begun to leak. He was also sure that the ancient law of sanctuary, in which those accused of murder could be given forty days protection from revenge and the law, had been abolished in the seventeenth century. But perhaps there were exceptions, he told himself; and he knew it was his Christian duty to speak to any stranger and offer compassion, particularly at this benevolent time of year.
The man’s name was Vasily Kreutzer. He had been born in Russia and come to England as a child before the war. He wore a raincoat that stretched to his ankles and his hair was wet with rain. He began his confession by telling Sidney that his wife was beautiful: too beautiful to live.
Sophia Kreutzer had been a talented musician who took lessons in London. Her teacher, Ivan Truchevsky, played first violin in a prominent orchestra. The previous week the weather had been so bad that the last train to Cambridge had been cancelled and she had stayed overnight at Truchevsky’s house. This was the night, Vasily Kreutzer was convinced, on which his wife had betrayed him.
Sidney asked if Sophia had confessed to anything before he had decided to kill her. Had she provided him with anything other than a perfectly innocent explanation for her actions?
‘She didn’t need to say anything. I could tell from the look on her face when she came home. It was guilty.’
‘She could have been sorry that she left you alone.’
‘She knows I worry.’
‘Life without her. Now it is true. I have done what I feared the most.’ Kreutzer’s right hand shook. He reached into his coat for a cigarette. He had already struck the match when Sidney asked him to stop. ‘Do you mind not doing that? We are in church.’
Kreutzer flung the matches and then the cigarette away towards the altar. He clenched his fist and punched his forehead. ‘Stupid.’
Sidney waited before asking his next question. ‘Can you tell me what happened?’
‘I was in the kitchen. There was a knife.’
‘For the bread.’
‘You did not plan what you were going to do?’
‘I stabbed her in the heart.’ Kreutzer punched himself again.
‘How many times?’
‘I can’t remember.’
‘Again and again or just once?’
‘Once, I think.’
‘And did you remove the knife?’
‘Why do you ask? I don’t think so. It doesn’t matter. There was blood everywhere. I thought I was dreaming. There was no connection between my mind and body. I remember blood on the floor. It was dark like wine.’
‘When was this?’
‘A few hours ago.’
‘So your wife is still in the kitchen with a knife in her heart?’
Kreutzer looked as if he had only just remembered that time had not stopped at the moment of murder but was still continuing. ‘She must be.’
‘Do you have children?’
‘Where are they?’
‘I can’t think of them.’
‘But I must. We need to summon an ambulance. And the police. You must give me your address.’
‘She is dead. The blood. It was a lake.’
‘Your address. I insist.’
Sidney left for the vicarge, telephoned Inspector Keating and asked him to send officers to Kreutzer’s home. He also suggested that they should talk to Ivan Truchevsky.
An hour later a policeman arrived at the church with a young woman. It was Kreutzer’s wife.
‘Did you know he was making all this up?’ She asked.
‘I couldn’t be sure. It was the amount of blood. Your husband said it was everywhere. But there is often little bleeding if there is only one blow and the knife is kept in the wound. He was also unusually distressed. It was strange to show such remorse so soon.’
‘It comes from his fear that I am going to leave him.’
‘And are you? Sidney asked.
Sophia Kreutzer hesitated. ‘Vasya is not the easiest person to live with but I know he cannot survive without me. What should I do?’
‘Let him see that you love him.’
‘And what if I find that hard? Will you talk to him?’
Sidney returned to the church. ‘She has come back to me?’ Kreutzer asked. ‘From the grave?’
‘She was never dead,’ Sidney replied. ‘You should not have such fantasies.’
‘I think they are real.’
‘You imagined the worst that could happen so that you could learn to bear anything less. But we all have fears. Sometimes that we kill. At other times that we are about to be killed. We have to learn to live with our anxieties. If we do not trust people then we drive them away; and if we suspect them of duplicity then it is we who betray them. Go home now. Love your children. Marriage is your sanctuary. Not here.’
The rain had eased and a faint light glowed from the last of the sun. A murder of crows started up into the night air. The choir began a round of carol singing outside the village pub: God rest you merry gentlemen.
Sidney watched as Sophia Kreutzer put her arm round her husband and led him away, past the bare trees and on to the dark meadows.
The telephone was already ringing when he walked through the door of the vicarage. It was Inspector Keating.
‘Bad news, I’m afraid. That violinist. Truchevsky.’
‘Don’t tell me…’
‘As you feared. Dead in his flat. Stabbed through the heart.’
Sidney Chambers, the Vicar of Grantchester, is a thirty-two-year-old bachelor. Tall, with dark brown hair, eyes the colour of hazelnuts and a reassuringly gentle manner, Sidney is an unconventional clergyman and can go where the police cannot.
Together with his roguish friend, Inspector Geordie Keating, Sidney inquires into the suspect suicide of a Cambridge solicitor, a scandalous jewellery theft at a New Year’s Eve dinner party, the unexplained death of a well-known jazz promoter and a shocking art forgery, the disclosure of which puts a close friend in danger. Sidney discovers that being a detective, like being a clergyman, means that you are never off duty.
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