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.
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!
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!