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Bookish Thoughts

Sunday Salon Book Review: In the Bleak Midwinter

By July 31, 201110 Comments
The Sunday
It’s still hot in southern Indiana, but I’ve been keeping cool by staying inside (mostly) and reading Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mystery novel, In the Bleak Midwinter. This is the first book in the Reverend Clare Fergusson and Chief Russ Van Alystyne series. Several friends have recommended these books before, as I’m always looking for good mysteries, and this first book does not disappoint.

In the Bleak Midwinter is set, well, in the bleak midwinter. In the New York Adirondacks. There’s a whole scene where one of the characters is wandering around inadequately dressed in the middle of a blizzard, and Spencer-Fleming describes at great length how cold that is. Reading those passages in the bleak mid-summer is like instant air conditioning. Yes, bring on the frostbite!

Reverend Clare Fergusson and Chief Russ Van Alystyne are incredibly likable and believable characters. I like the way Spencer-Fleming draws parallels between the two jobs, being a priest and being a cop. And then how she demonstrates the differences and tensions that would develop between two friends in those jobs. This first book is very light on the theology; it’s easy to forget for whole chapters that Clare is actually an Episcopal priest. I appreciate that, because I don’t particularly want to be witnessed to in a mystery novel, but it’ll be interesting to find out more about Reverend Clare’s theology as the series goes on. We don’t get a whole lot of back story in this novel on how Clare goes from being in the army to becoming a priest, but I’m hopeful that will be filled in down the line. Russ is, of course, an atheist, or at least seems very uncomfortable with religion, so there’s all kinds of fertile material to develop in further books there. And of course, there are all kinds of places to go with the little budding of a romance happening between Clare and Russ, given that Russ is married and in this first book, we don’t ever even “see” his wife.

The actual mystery part of the novel is okay. I find a really deeply satisfying “mystery” part of the mystery story is fairly rare and difficult to find. Mysteries share in common with Broadway musicals that inherent bit of unreality. Really, for some reason everyone suddenly bursts into song and dance? Really, for some reason murder follows Mrs. Marple everywhere she goes? Now, if you’re a cop, it’s more plausible that there’s a lot of “mysteries” in your life, but in this first novel we’ve established that Millers Kill is a small town; how many murders are there going to be? And in my experience living in a small town, okay, there are a fair number of murders. But not much mystery. Usually it involves meth or some other drug or partner violence. Still sad and tragic, but rarely very complicated in the sense mysteries are in the mystery novel. The good news is that, for me, a good mystery novel is less about the mystery than about the characters, and Reverend Clare and Chief Russ more than make up for the weakness of the plot.

For the first time in what feels like months, I would think about this book while I was out and about and get very excited about getting home and reading more. And now that I’ve finished it, I’m jonesing for the next novel in the series (the library has it, but is closed on Sunday’s! The agony!). There are times in the past when the first book in a mystery series has been outstanding, and then the next few don’t live up to that first effort. I’m optimistic that this will not be the case for this series.

Hopefully, look for an upcoming review of Girls Like Us, which I started, and then lost. Don’t you hate when a book escapes?  I know it’s in the house somewhere, and am hoping some cleaning today will uncover it. Happy Sunday!


  • I like books that totally engage me…and if they make me feel cool during the heat, so much the better! Hope you enjoy it.


  • Tea says:

    I would like to read this series or start it. Glad you told which book it is in the series, #1.

  • Excellent choice for this hot weather!

    Here's my Sunday Salon for this week:
    Sunday Salon: How to Read, Use, and Abuse Beautiful and Pointless Novels Like a Professor

    And a reminder: Today is the last day for you to throw your hat into the ring for my July Giveaway! Win a $25 Amazon gift card!

  • It's so great to discover a good mystery series that you like. I feel like I've done Sue Grafton, Laurie King, and Faye Kellerman too many times!

  • Marg says:

    I read this book a couple of months ago. We don't get snow or blizzards in winter here, so I couldn't really draw on memories, but the imagery was clear and made me so glad that I don't have to deal with this each year.

    I loved the chemistry between Russ and Clare, and can't wait to read more of the series.

  • Doris says:

    Thanks for the book suggestions. I'll have to check out this book.

    I've found keeping my books locked in my Kindle helps keep them from escaping!


  • Robyn says:

    The book has thankfully been found!

    Creations by Laurel-Rain Snow, yes books as air conditioning…I highly recommend it.

    Tea, hope you enjoy it. I hate not starting a series at the beginning of skipping a book. I'm too anal to read out of order.

    Deb Nance, thanks for stopping by and thanks for the link.

    Helen's Book Blog, yes, I'm very picky about my mysteries, so I'm hoping this series pays off.

    Marg, yes I loved the scene where Clare's out in the woods. I thought Spencer-Fleming did a good job conveying how terrifying that would be, that if you get lost, you're probably going to die.

    Doris, yes, the kindle would probably solve the lost book problem, as long as you don't lose the kindle. Thankfully, the book got found.

  • Trish says:

    I like your idea of reading something 'cold' in the heat of the summer! I'll have to keep a look out for some good and chilly titles .

  • Yvette says:

    I've read all the books in this particular series and all I can say is wait until you see what happens next. When I first began reading the Claire Ferguson and Russ Van Alstyne books I hated having to wait a whole year to see what happned next. It was agonizing. But now all the earlier books are available in order. Lucky you if you're coming to this series for the first time.

    This is a very well written series, in my point of view. But it's the emotional connections that carry these books along.

  • Robyn says:

    Trish, I think last summer I read a non-fiction account of a failed expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Perfect, though not really uplifting.

    Yvette, I just started Fountains of Blood (not as great a title as In the Bleak Midwinter) and it does not disappoint. Yes, glad I don't have to wait a whole year between the books. And so happy to have found a series to keep me busy for a while.

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