Book Review

A Fountain Filled with Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming


Title: A Fountain Filled with Blood
Author: Julia Spencer-Fleming
Publication Info: St. Martin's Press 2004
ISBN: 0312995431
Genre: Romantic Suspense

A Fountain Filled With Blood 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.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    JaniceG says:

    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 feel this way about the CS Harris Regency mystery series beginning with What Angels Fear. I’ve been pushing it on everyone I know.

    As for the Julia Spencer-Fleming series, I think that love and commitment between two attracted people can exist without culmination, whether marriage or sex. However, if at least one of the people is single and has the ultimate goal of commitment and an acknowledged public relationship then over the long term, if it’s clear that the culmination will never occur for one reason or another, that person has to get out for the sake of their own sanity and future happiness.

  2. 2
    LizC says:

    At this point, I’ve become a hyperventilating freakshow about this series.

    Join the club. I’ve been trying to get my sister to read these books for a year and she keeps resisting.

    I think I love Clare and Russ so much because if they get a HEA it will be decidedly earned. They also seem more real than a lot of pairings in romance novels. They aren’t so rich they don’t really have to work, their problems aren’t problems I can’t even comprehend or that will be fixed by the end of the book. Plus I love that they’re such an unconventional pairing.

    My biggest concern when starting these books was that Russ’s wife would be portrayed as a horrible woman to make people more comfortable with Russ and Clare. That’s not the case. She’s a perfectly nice woman (most of the time) but she and Russ have believably grown apart and they’ve stopped communicating. My main issue has to deal with spoilers for later books so I won’t mention it.

  3. 3
    KeriM says:

    I just finished the The Bleak Midwinter, after seeing it recommended here and on DA, so I gave it a shot. I LOVED IT!!! I already have the 2nd in the series, but am trying to pace myself on reading them. So I am going to save it for the coming up weekend, I can only deny myself so long. I love the way that Julia is slowly growing the relationship, drawing it out for us. She is a very masterful story teller and i am totally looking forward to reading the rest of the series. Usually I crave my HEA, but since I was forewarned about the subject matter of the book it didn’t bother me in the least. I love Clair and Russ and look forward to reading this book! Thanks for the great review Sarah. :-)

  4. 4
    Tea says:

    …huh. Interesting. I read your review of the first one, and now I’m definitely heading toward picking them up. Are all the titles from hymns/carols? I love the mystery/maybe no HEA vibe.

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    Yup, they are all hymns. And since the Episcopalians are my former homies and I was in a church choir for 10 years, I know every damn one and get them routinely stuck in my head.

  6. 6
    darlynne says:

    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?

    I’ve read all the books so far and must say that Spencer-Fleming ratchets up the tension in ways I’ve never encountered in other mystery/romance novels. The number of times I blink while reading goes down in direct correlation to how tight the story becomes. So, yes, tension between a couple can be sustained and quite believably in the right hands. My only concern is that a random comment to reviews of this series may reveal any of several major spoilers, which would be a real shame.

  7. 7
    Lizzie (greeneyed fem) says:

    I’ve read all of this series (I also started because of the e-book giveaway of the first two), and will keep reading as long as she’s writing. I’m glad others here are enjoying/discovering them.

    Emil and Paul can’t commit to one another legally, and are stuck as partners.

    Although I realize that the characters Emil and Paul might feel they’re “stuck” being partners (I’d have to re-read the book to get my own sense of their feelings), some people (like me) choose to be partnered, rather than married. For me, it’s not a less-than situation. It’s what I want.

    /end personal/political tangent. :)

  8. 8
    Bev Stephans says:

    I just finished “In The Bleak Midwinter” and loved it.  After your recommendation, I bought it from a used book store as I was uncertain as to whether or not I would like it.  Now I have to have my own pristine copy.  LOL!  I have also ordered the next four from Amazon (their 4 for 3 deal) and can’t wait to get my hands on them.  The chemistry between Clare and Russ is quite amazing and will be interesting to see how it plays out.

  9. 9

    Welcome to the club, Sarah! I adore this series and eagerly await each new entry. I don’t know anyone else who combines a really intelligent, well-developed mystery with such a strong dose of romance. I keep telling everyone (including Julia) that Julia Spencer-Fleming is who I want to be when I grow up. I’m so glad you discovered the series and can help share it with smart bitches everywhere!

  10. 10
    Theora_Jones says:

    How intrusive is the religious element? This sounds like a great series, but I have issues with organized religion in general and the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular…it’s guaranteed to yank me out of the story every time.

  11. 11

    Theora – this is not Inspirational fiction, in that the story is not trying to sell you on Jesus or a particular branch of Christianity. However, Claire is an Episcopal priest (although a very rebellious one) and she is deeply spiritual and often troubled by her own failings as a priest and a Christian. In fact, one of the main conflicts throughout the series is Claire’s problems with organized religion. She’s a tough, spirited heroine who’s also a former Army helicopter pilot, so she’s about as unconventional as a priest gets.

    I think you could read it and not be annoyed by it, because her concerns could translate to someone of any faith (or no particular religious faith). She’s constantly butting heads with the people in authority over her, much like many other sleuths in detective fiction. And she wants to be a good person but finds herself attracted to another woman’s husband – that’s a problem in just about any value system, whether Christian or Wiccan or Atheist. Now, some very devout people I’ve pitched this series to absolutely hate it because of her ongoing attraction to a married man. They have trouble believing that sort of thing happens to priests or ministers. But of course, it does, and it’s her extremely flawed nature as a priest that makes her interesting.

    As a priest, Claire’s life does follow the daily patterns of the church, with Mass and prayer and hymns and assorted Christian ceremonies, so if the mere mention of Eucharist or Mass just makes you crazy for personal reasons, you probably won’t enjoy it. But if you’re worried that this is a gung-ho Inspirational novel in which the characters spend a lot of time talking about how much they love the Lord and how you should too, then you’d probably be able to read this series with no problem.

  12. 12
    Trix says:

    Speaking as a queer person – and there are many who disagree with me – I prefer to refer to my significant other as a “partner”, rather than a “spouse” or “wife” or any other construct relating to marriage. Marriage, despite how many people are trying to reconstruct it, has heterosexual and religious (and ownership) connotations, which I feel uncomfortable using to describe my relationship (even if I could do it in a legal sense). Also, I like the idea of “partnership” being a shared endeavour we are embarked on, rather than being contractually joined to legitimise the children (which, unfortunately, is the first thing I think of when it comes to term).

    [None of this is intended to insult anyone, by the way. Marriage is great for those who relate to the concept, with or without the baggage I mention.]

    So while I take the point about a “partner” often being viewed as a poor substitute for being a “spouse”, there are plenty of us who think it’s an equally noble title for someone you choose to spend your life with.

    Of course, all of that was completely OT. I will be keeping an eye out for these books, because it’s horribly rare for straight fiction to have queers and their concerns as a significant element, and these sound like good reads.

  13. 13
    SB Sarah says:

    So while I take the point about a “partner” often being viewed as a poor substitute for being a “spouse”, there are plenty of us who think it’s an equally noble title for someone you choose to spend your life with.

    I hear you. Funny, I was just doing an interview yesterday and was talking about my husband as my partner in all things. When I was writing this review, though, I was looking from the perspective of someone who wanted to be united in all areas, from tax returns to living wills to property and parenthood and social understanding and recognition, and couldn’t because they’re gay. I agree that “partnerhood” is a valid choice. I choose it myself sometimes as the descriptive that explains my relationship with Hubby.

    But I’m cushioned by the fact that my marriage, because I’m heterosexual, is recognized by other authorities beyond that choice of words. Everyone regardless of sexual orientation should be able to choose whatever word and union they want.

  14. 14
    Theora_Jones says:

    Thanks, Lynn, for your lovely post. I appreciate your time and thoughtfulness, and I will definitely give this series a try.

    spam word:  area55
    Where the real UFOs hang out. ;-P

  15. 15
    Karen S. says:

    Hee, welcome to the club, Sarah!  I read these a couple years ago (before book 5 came out—oh man did the end of that one cause a nearly-very-embarassing reaction as I read it on the bus) and as a Library Assistant, I unashamedly pimp them to anyone who asks for a mystery or mystery/romance read.

    I love that Clare and Russ are such *real* people, and their relationship is realistic in its conflicts and progression.  And she balances the two genres very well, not sacrificing mystery for romance or vice versa.

    spamword: trade39.  I’d trade my firstborn 39 times over to get my hands on a copy of the next book right now!

  16. 16
    Magdalen says:

    I took your recommendation on the first book, and LOVED it.  I’ve recommended it to my cousin who (like me) adores Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher series.  The Millers Kill series is quite different, but good writing is good writing.  Also, both my cousin and I are “godless heathens” (no, not really—but we were raised Episcopalian before eschewing organized religion)—but her dad was an Episcopal priest.  I like the way J.S-F. presents both Clare’s military background and her current vocation, while also presenting Russ’s non-religious leanings.

    And about the so-far-unseen Mrs. van Allstine—well, I do know what’s in store for her (having ordered the rest of the books in the series) but I’m a bit disappointed that J.S-F. didn’t explore the realities of a marriage that’s okay but turns out not to be what one person wants.  I went through that, and have ended up with a delightful English husband and a delightful English ex-husband.  All good friends, I’m happy to say.  Way less scope for dramatic tension, but still nice.

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