Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming

It's a cold, snowy December in the upstate New York town of Millers Kill, and newly ordained Clare Fergusson is on thin ice as the first female priest of its small Episcopal church. The ancient regime running the parish covertly demands that she prove herself as a leader. However, her blunt manner, honed by years as an army pilot, is meeting with a chilly reception from some members of her congregation and Chief of Police Russ Van Alystyne, in particular, doesn't know what to make of her, or how to address "a lady priest" for that matter.

The last thing she needs is trouble, but that is exactly what she finds. When a newborn baby is abandoned on the church stairs and a young mother is brutally murdered, Clare has to pick her way through the secrets and silence that shadow that town like the ever-present Adirondack mountains. As the days dwindle down and the attraction between the avowed priest and the married police chief grows, Clare will need all her faith, tenacity, and courage to stand fast against a killer's icy heart.
In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming is the first book in a contemporary mystery series with an 'updated' cozy style. The setting is the small New York town of Millers Kill in the Adirondack Mountains which provides this story with wonderful atmosphere. The place is perfect for the mystery/police-procedural plot as well as the interesting situations and characters.

The characters are what really caught my attention in this initial installment, particularly Clare. She is Rev. Clare Fergusson, the new priest at the town's Episcopal church. However she doesn't turn out to be your typical priest, Clare is also an ex-military helicopter pilot and you can tell there's history there. She's a tough, down-to-earth, no-nonsense woman who wants to know her community and give them more than spiritual guidance. The other central character is Chief of Police Russ Van Alystyne. He is more typical of this type of character: middle-aged, fairly good looking, married, ex-army, a bit cynical and disenchanted with life, but protective of his small town.

Ms. Spencer-Fleming's focus in this first installment is in developing the relationship between the central characters and to some extent revealing parts of their lives. The secondary characters are also well drawn and memorable. Having said that, it is also interesting how the author draws key characters that hover invisibly yet don't appear in the story. For example: Russ' wife, Linda, and his mother are both mentioned repeatedly. Linda in particular is a presence, yet neither character makes a single appearance even though they live in a small town. I'm hoping to meet these characters later on in the series.

The author's focus pays off and there's excellent development in the way the friendship between Russ and Clare evolves. As the friendship deepens, their commonalities come to the surface. Military background is the initial factor, but slowly they realize that even though one is a cop and the other a priest, both need to serve their community. Russ feels responsible for the town and its people -- protect and serve. Clare feels responsible for their spiritual lives and personal well-being -- serve and provide.

Despite the fact that Clare is a priest and there are moments in this book where spirituality comes into play, the fact that Russ is agnostic seems to balance the scales in that respect and the story doesn't come off as preachy. In fact as their friendship evolves, what Clare most appreciates about Russ is that he sees/treats her as a regular person (as Clare) and not as a priest. In turn, Russ appreciates the fact that he can find understanding when sharing his professional burdens with Clare. The reader experiences the great connection between these two people as they become friends, as well as a slow-building, subtle chemistry.

The mystery plot is a bit of ride. A baby is abandoned at the church steps and a young girl is found murdered. Clare and her parish are involved in both these events from the beginning and she and Russ wind up investigating both situations together. During the investigation, Spencer-Fleming touches on social issues, mainly on the plight of underprivileged pregnant teenage girls and what can or should be done to help educate them to stop the cycle of poverty.

There's a slew of suspects, red-herrings are used as a device, and Russ acts a bit like a typical cynical cop while Clare refuses to believe good people are capable of murder. They both err, but Clare makes grave mistakes along the way and her impulsive actions gave me more than a few anxious moments. It's interesting because I usually chuck these actions to lack of judgment, but in Clare's case I saw them more as part of her humanity and in some instances due to her "vocation." I had a few other niggles to do with the mystery, but nothing significant.

This is not a romance. Russ is married, Clare is a priest and they're friends. Yet, as I mentioned above, there's chemistry and a building attraction between these two people. This is interesting and a bit controversial with the Chief married and Clare a woman of the cloth, yes? I certainly want to know what happens next.

This was an enjoyable mystery with well-developed and interesting human characters, plotting and a lovely setting. I definitely want to see how this series evolves and will read the second book, A Fountain Filled with Blood.

Thanks to Orannia for the recommendation.

Category: Mystery
Series: Rev. Clare Fergusson and Chief of Police Russ Van Alystyne Mystery, Book 1
Release Date: Minotaur Books; April 1, 2010 - Kindle Edition
Grade: B+

Visit Julia Spencer-Fleming here.

7 comments:

  1. Hilcia, thanks for a lovely and thoughtful review! There is something about your first book that never grows old.
    Yours,
    Julia

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  2. You have picked my interest, though I admit I'm not patient enough to read more mysteries - you made it sound like those really good movies about mysteries.

    I shall try to check it out.

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  3. I'm just wondering here... as Clare is a priest, there will never be a romance element, right?

    I'm interested to see in which direction this series will go and how much you'll enjoy it as a whole :)

    Now, if only I could pick it up ^_^; I've had this book in my TBR pile forever ^_^;

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  4. Hi Julia. As you can see, I really enjoyed your first book. I loved your characters and will definitely continue reading the series. Thanks for stopping by!

    Alex, this book is just like that -- excellent descriptions of sceneries and action, characterization, and events. I hope if you read it, you enjoy.

    Nath, Clare is an Episcopalian priest so she can get married if she chooses to. :) So if the author wants to... there CAN be a romance element. That's why I think it's so interesting and can be a bit controversial. The Chief is married and she's a Reverend, so where will it go?

    I will definitely let you know what I think of the series, since I already have the 2nd book to read. ;)

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  5. I have a few of this series on the tbr pile. What drew me is Clare and her role in the small town. Love those unique characters. :)

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  6. Hils - fantastic review! And I'm so glad you enjoyed the book! Yes Clare makes some bad decisions, but they are human decisions (versus TSTL :) And yes, you will meet Russ' wife and mother in later books.

    As for the religious aspect, I loved the line drawn by the author. I'm not religious per say, and I was worried such a book might gallop into the realm of preachy, but it didn't.

    I look forward to hearing what you think of the second book :)

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  7. Leslie, great! I think you'll like this series. Definitely unique characters and great setting.

    Orannia, thanks so much for recommending this series! I definitely enjoyed the first book and will continue to read it. I'm glad to hear that those two characters make appearances, they seem important. We agree on the religious aspect. I liked the way it was handled.

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