In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming

>> Sunday, February 21, 2010

TITLE: In the Bleak Midwinter
AUTHOR: Julia Spencer-Fleming

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyn series.

REASON FOR READING: I've been hearing good things about this series for a while now, but I think what made me pick it up in the end was something Katharina said.

Heavy Snow...Icy Desires...Cold-Blooded Murder

Clare Fergusson, St. Alban's new priest, fits like a square peg in the conservative Episcopal parish at Miller's Kill, New York. She is not just a "lady," she's a tough ex Army chopper pilot, and nobody's fool. Then a newborn infant left at the church door brings her together with the town's police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, who's also ex-Army and a cynical good shepherd for the stray sheep of his hometown. Their search for the baby's mother quickly leads them into the secrets that shadow Miller's Kill like the ever-present Adirondacks. What they discover is a world of trouble, an attraction to each other-and murder...
At the start of In The Bleak Midwinter the new Episcopalian priest of Miller's Kill finds an abandoned baby outside the church. Police chief Russ Van Alstyn, called in to investigate, is surprised to find the new priest to be not only a woman, but one who's ex-Army, just like him, and who's nothing like any other priest he's known.

As Russ investigates the case (which soon begins to get more and more complicated, when murder is thrown into the pot), much helped by the things Clare runs into as she tends to her parishioners, the two become friends.

I know that was a pretty sketchy summary, but it's a good mystery, with plenty of twists and turns and red herrings, and it's best to discover what happens as you go along. The one thing I'm going to say about it is something about the way the investigation proceeds, just because I always mentally groan a little bit at the idea of amateurs "dabbling" in murder investigations. Most of the book, Clare isn't playing detective, or anything silly like that. She's too sensible for that. She just comes across relevant things doing perfectly normal priestly things. She does do something pretty stupid near the end, but that a relatively minor annoyance, and on the whole, the whole issue of "what on earth does she think she's doing?" doesn't arise at all.

Clare is the kind of priest an agnostic (i.e me) can be comfortable reading about. She clearly has a deep faith but isn't judgemental about it and is very human, with flaws she knows she has and works to get beyond. Clare sees her duty as being as much about helping those who need help as about the ritual and pomp and tending spiritually to her congregation.

This conception of her duty places her at odds with much of her solidly middle-class, conservative congregation's wishes. They'd like the congregation to grow, so they're happy to have Clare plan projects to raise their profile, but they'd like the new additions to the congregation to be the "right" sort of people, so the sort of projects Clare thinks she should be doing (i.e. helping people in real need, such as single mothers, etc.) won't necessarily do it for them. Clare, however, regards it as her duty to do what she whole-heartedly believes is right and what she believes God would want her to do, not what her congregation wants. This conflict is always in the background here, and from what I've read of the upcoming books in the series, it doesn't disappear easily.

Russ is also an interesting character, although maybe not as fascinating to me as Clare was, maybe because his background isn't quite as unique. What intrigued me the most about Russ at this point was his marriage. Russ has been married for years. He's not particularly happy, but he's not unhappy, either. He cares for his wife, even loves her and is very loyal to her, but isn't in love with her, either. This is not a cheating hounddog at all... at least, he doesn't seem to be one (keep in mind I've read only the first to books in the series at this point and have avoided any spoilers), which makes his relationship with Clare palatable. Speaking of which...

Good as the mystery was and as much as I liked the main characters on their own, what makes this book outstanding is the relationship between Clare and Russ. At this point, it is all about them becoming friends. I know many other readers see their relationship as being non-platonic from the beginning, but I didn't. It'll sound corny, but what came to my mind when I was reading was that Russ and Clare were clicking soul to soul, meeting and liking the very essence of the other person. It doesn't matter that Russ is agnostic and Clare a priest, that he's a cynic and she's not, or that there's a 14-year age difference betwen them. There's chemistry there, just not the sexual kind. It's a rare thing to read about, a completely platonic friendship between a man and a woman who soon start to deeply care about each other. By the time a slightly different awareness enters the relationship, near the end of the book, they were already friends. I'm really going to enjoy seeing this develop.

Something else I liked about the book was how well the setting is done. Miller's Kill really comes alive, and the winter is a character in its own right. It's vividly described and plays a huge part in the story, especially because Clare is new to the area and has never had to experience rural upstate New York in December. Neither have I, nor anything at all like it, and now that the coldest January in years in England has given me some experience of snow and ice, I really identified with her mistakes.



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