At this point, I’ve become a hyperventilating freakshow about this series. I read all six in a marathon of reading and staying up late, and I’ve passed the name of the author on to anyone who stands still long enough. I’ve read the first one three times, and am re-reading the second. Not only has reading these books given me a lot to think about in terms of what it is I like so much about romance – and conversely, why I’m enjoying this series so much – but I’m also giving my brain a sort of spring-cleaning by jumping out of the genre in which I usually immerse myself. Sorbet for the brain, served by the gallon. There’s a decided thread of romance in this series, but the happy ending is not at all guaranteed, and that precipice of relationship disaster is one I haven’t wandered close to for a long while with my fiction reading.
Six months have passed since In the Bleak Midwinter, and Clare and Russ have avoided each other for the most part since Christmas. A new resort is being built in the mountains by Millers Kill, and the town is divided by the prospect of new jobs – a big deal for a former blue-collar mill town – and the discovery of PCBs in a school playground that may have come from rainwater runoff from the construction. The resort is being built near the site of an old shale mine, where PCBs had been stored until the containers leaked. It was supposedly cleaned up, but enough people are suspicious that protests begin.
Amid all the chemical drama, the town’s medical examiner, Emil Dvorak, is assaulted within a centimeter of his life, and Clare is with Emil’s partner Paul when Russ comes to bring Paul to the hospital. Thrown together again despite their best intentions, Clare and Russ attempt to maintain an even friendship, not acknowledging to one another their ferociously growing attraction yet unable to stay away from each another once circumstances have brought them together again.
When another man, a young video store owner, is assaulted as well, and it is discovered that he too is gay, Clare thinks the crimes are related through prejudicial motivation. Russ suspects the same but disagrees with her that the two assaults ought to be labeled as such publicly. But when Clare finds the beaten body of one of the resort developers, also a gay man, hidden in the park, the connection is difficult for her to ignore.
The seasonal calendar and the daily and yearly Episcopal liturgical calendar serve as backdrop and timekeeper of the story, but this novel contrasts with the first with a nonstop pace that’s scorching instead of slow, cold, and ethereally creepy like the events in “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Plus, “A Fountain Filled With Blood also features almost unreal life-threatening events and thriller-style action, including one sequence that made me wonder if Jerry Bruckheimer was influencing the story. And I identified the source of their problems long before they did, despite several huge, startling inconsistencies in the characters’ behavior. Even though identifying the one what dun it ratcheted up the tension because I knew bad shit was gonna throw down, I was smacking my forehead while waiting for Clare and Russ to wake up and smell the bad guy.
Deep under the surface of the story, though, is an exploration of what “partner” and “partnership” really mean, and the important and often ignored nuances of relationships between two people, regardless of gender. Clare and Russ are partners in the crime-solving sense, and their unique methods of approaching problems compliment one another perfectly. But their attraction, and the fact that Russ is married, prevent them from truly, openly working together. They are more than friends, but cannot be what they are publicly, outside the parameters of the investigation that Clare, again, stumbles into.
Yet Emil Dvorak, the first assault victim, and Paul are partners, the nice cozy politically correct euphemism for “not really married in the eyes of the government” and “who are you kidding, they’re more than friends.” “Partner” is the word they get because “husband,” “spouse” and “married” are off-limits in the current homophobic vernacular. They struggle to find their place in society, to be seen as a couple, even when it’s unsafe for them to do so, or when bureaucracy insists that they are not what and who they say they are. Their partnership is a commitment without any support aside from their own abiding dedication.
Emil and Paul’s relationship serves as a fractured reflection of Russ and Clare’s. The root causes of their respective hiding are slightly different – absence of legal commitment vs. acutely present legal commitment – but even that is a tangled issue. Emil and Paul can’t commit to one another legally, and are stuck as partners. Russ and Clare can’t either, and are barely able to balance their emotions working as partners. Yet both are more than friends, and fall into that vague morass that is the word “partnership.”
The thing I most appreciate about reading these books is that they’ve not only given me a heaping pile of sorbet for my mental appetite for romance, but they’ve forced me to think about what it is that I love about the relationship in these books, and what it is I love about the relationships in my favorite romances. What is it, for example, about the forbidden attraction, or the hidden attraction, that I find so appealing? What’s the balance between unattainable love and attraction versus irreparably undermining the morality of one of the protagonists? Can a romance sustain the tension between the protagonists similar to the questions surrounding Russ and Clare, or is it impossible with the underlying assurance of romance’s happy ending?
Because of the paralleled relationships in the story, the reader is left questioning the role of love and commitment between people who, depending on whom one asks, “shouldn’t” be together. Does the presence of love and commitment make any partnership acceptable? Again, depends on who you ask.