RITA Reader Challenge Review

In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Book Cover Jane used to joke that it was hilarious to her how often it seemed I was living under a very large, very heavy rock, since it was clear I had no idea what was going on around me. It’s true. What my rock is cooking: let me show you it.

So while I knew about the Julia Spencer-Fleming series, I’d never read them, mostly because character relationships that carry on over multiple books tend to wear me out, and drain too much of my memory, and because I fear, in the context of a mystery series, that while the crime may be solved, ultimately, the happy ending will not be so happy.

However, I love mysteries solved by couples, though, from Tuppence and Tommy Beresford to Nick and Nora Charles, and even John Steed and Emma Peel (is there a better eyebrow raised than when Diana Rigg shoots the tip off Patrick Macnee’s champagne bottle in the 60’s color intro? I mean, dude. Srsly).

I also know that when I am really slammed with things to do and overwhelmed by my to-do list, I tend to feel the desire to read more keenly. That’s when the allure of a series that’s many books in progress, which I can read one after the other and therefore immerse myself in the world of the narrative, is incredibly seductive. When I was writing chapters of Beyond Heaving Bosoms, I spent a few minutes every day with Kresley Cole’s series because Jane had told me they were among her favorites, and because the world in the series was so evocative, I was happy to visit repeatedly over a few weeks of reading.

So I’m all packed and ready to move to Miller’s Kill, New York, even though I have a kernel of fear in my belly that ultimately the happy ending for the protagonists won’t be so happy. I downloaded these books last summer when the first two were free for the taking. Since reading those two, I’ve purchased the next two, though they are only available in e-format from Amazon. So don’t let it be said that free ebooks don’t yield additional purchases. It so does. I just wish I had a choice of formats and vendors.

Rev. Clare Fergusson is the new rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church* in Miller’s Kill, a small town north north way the hell north in upstate New York. At one point it’s described as about 25 miles from Vermont. Fergusson’s been in Miller’s Kill for all of three weeks when one night she leaves her rectory to go jogging and finds an abandoned baby on the doorstep to the church.

[*A note about name choices. “Clare” is an interesting one, as the “Poor Clares” are one of the few independent convent associations (is that the right word?) of nuns today. They live barefoot, take meals standing up and in silence facing away from one another, eschew meat and eat only what vegetables they grow or what food is donated to them, and live a dedicated life focused on charitable works. The Poor Clares are, to be blunt, hard core. So it’s interesting that Clare Fergusson, who is truly devoted to her vocation, shares a name with this sect, given that Fergusson struggles mightily with her own temptation.

St. Alban, if you’re curious, was the first British Christian martyr, and a few years ago there was a movement to have Alban replace St. George as the patron saint of England. Alban: the darkhorse candidate for patron saint.]

At the hospital with the baby, she meets the chief of police, Russ Van Alstyne, and because (a) Clare is incredibly curious, (b) she and Russ get on like a house on fire, and (c) Russ suspects the church and its parishioners may be connected to the case, the two are inextricably involved in finding the baby’s parents.

Then, when Clare accompanies Russ on Friday night patrol (she wants to find out more about the “real Miller’s Kill”), they find a dead girl in a park, half-buried in the snow. The mystery becomes one of murder, family scandal, abandoned and neglected children, and community secrecy. Ultimately, I had no idea who the villain was, and despite the final scene being so over the top in its execution, I was surprised by the ending and by the whodunit. Often I guess based on the frequent inclusion of the villain, but in this case, I had no idea.

The good points are too many to mention. The writing is lyrical and taut, the tension slowly builds, both in the plot and between Russ and Clare, and the setting and the weather are as much characters as the individuals themselves.

But what I absolutely enjoy is the slow and carefully wrought, hesitant but genuine relationship between Russ and Clare. Despite their age differences, they share a terrible amount of common backstory experience, from their service in the army (his as an MP, and hers as a helicopter pilot) to their manner in dealing with people who see only the uniforms they wear and not the people behind them. And at its core, this is a book about them, introducing them to one another and to the reader.

By the time either one recognize that the regard they hold for one another is more than mere respectful friendship, it’s a much larger problem than they realize. For one thing, Russ is married. While his wife doesn’t make an onscreen appearance, her character is undermined bit by bit as Russ reveals how distant they’ve become, how his home life and work life are so separate that insofar as his wife is concerned, he might as well be two separate people.

Beyond the fact of his marriage, though, the town is always watching. From the standard of conduct expected of those uniforms, chief and priest respectively, to the careless mistakes they make alerting the curious that they are together in a eyebrow-raising manner, late at night or off in the woods, Clare and Russ stumble into temptation and trouble, in spite of or because of their best intentions. With one hand I’m covering my eyes and with the other I’m prying my fingers apart to keep reading because their attraction is a slow scorch across a dry field. Doesn’t seem like much, and then suddenly the sky’s on fire.

The book, and the series that follow it, started out as a sort of mental sorbet, a treat to my brain as I work overtop of overtime on everything going on in my world, and it’s turned out to be a wonderful gift, not only in the writing, but in the opportunity to think about what it is I enjoy about suspense, mystery, forbidden attraction, and strong, sharp, intelligent protagonists. It also allows me privately a glimpse back into my former homies (I was Episcopalian before I converted to Judaism) so with all my childhood Sunday school education, choir years, and altar service, seeing the contrast, symbolism, and elegant balance of the hymns and collects woven into the story is another layer to ponder.

When I wrote recently about how to evaluate the first of a series as a “pilot” book, I wasn’t thinking of this series. I hadn’t started it yet. But this is one example of a pilot book that leaves larger questions unanswered, and more importantly creates a world which I as the reader want to revisit over and over again. Good thing I have a few more books ahead of me.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    JaniceG says:

    I was afraid when I read the plot synopsis originally for the first book that these would fall into the typical pattern of True Love Conquering All but instead the author made some interesting, and much more realistic, choices of where to go with the characters. Both the mystery and relationship aspects are challenging and involving. I envy you being able to read this series for the first time.

  2. 2
    SarahT says:

    There are so many things I love about this series!  The characters are multi-dimensional, even the minor ones.  For example, the Burnses are not the usual cutesy-pie wannabe adoptive parents.  The relationship between Clare & Russ evolves very naturally and their conflicting emotions are handled thoughtfully.  The mysteries are realistic in a small-community setting.  Minor characters reappear in later books.  And the best part?  The books keep getting better!

  3. 3
    Domy Gryfino says:

    This book was pretty interesting. The author managed to avoid most cliches and I respect her for that. But the title doesn’t sound that interesting – I’d hire some better marketing people to make it a little more “catchy”

  4. 4
    Sen says:

    This isn’t related to the post but I just had to ask … why do you use such a bright red as the background? Does it hurt anyone else’s eyes? It hurts mine—and I can never stand to see it for very long and need to resize my browser so that none of the red shows. I like red, but I find the red used here just terribly bright and not very soothing.

  5. 5
    LizC says:

    I love these books! I recommend them to pretty much every one. With few exceptions I have a difficult time keeping up with series if they’re in progress. I lose track of when a new novel is being published and when it is I never get around to buying it/checking it out from the library until so much time has passed that 3 more books have come out and by then I just give up. This is to say that I am counting the days until the next book in this series is released (Fall ‘09 or Winter ‘10. TOO LONG) because I love it so much.

    Also, if anyone is jonesing for more Miller’s Kill and Clare and Russ I suggest reading the short story Julia Spencer-Fleming has on her website.

  6. 6
    Lori says:

    I’ve read nothing but good things about this series and I own the first book, but I haven’t read it.  I just can’t get past the concern I have that Russ being married is going to result it Stuff I Don’t Want To Read.  IMO, if your marriage is that bad you need to do something to fix it and if you can’t fix it you need to end it. If you’re not going to end it you shouldn’t be forming a relationship with someone else, and the someone else shouldn’t be forming a relationship with you. 

    I know that last one isn’t necessarily a universally held opinion, but it is one of my “lines that shouldn’t be crossed” especially in fiction. So, this book just keeps getting moved to the bottom of the TBR.

  7. 7
    wavybrains says:

    This is one of my all-time favorite series, second only to Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooters. Her complex plotting and POV is dead-on. The series only gets better and better as it goes a long. I discovered it this summer and I devoured everything in 2 weeks. Now, I am so incredibly berefit that we’re STILL 9 months away from the next (last???) book.

    Lori, I don’t want to share spoilers, but I don’t think you will be disappointed in the way the series evolves over time.  Stick with it.  I Shall Not Want (the latest book) is well-worth the journey, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next. Married heroes/heroines are one of my lines as well, but this is so deftly handled that it becomes almost Shakespearean or Victorian in the depth of feeling that it evokes.

    And, on the OT, I’m with Sen. I think I remember back when the Bitches were pink. I liked pink.

  8. 8

    What a lovely review!  I’ve never heard of this series.  Thanks.

  9. 9
    Lori says:

    @wavybrains: I share your love of the Toubleshooters books, so I may take your word for it and venture into the series.

  10. 10

    I got the first two volumes of this series in a free ebook giveaway and immediately went out and got the rest in paper form, along with the first two to make the collection complete. I’m hanging on for the newest to come in paperback.

    LOVE this series – it’s realistic, intriguing and NOT filled with the usual cliches. Claire and Russ are a great couple when it comes to solving crimes. Their personal feelings towards each other are handled in a mature and honest way which keeps me coming back.

    Get. This. Book.

    then the rest.


  11. 11
    SarahT says:

    @LizC: Thanks for the heads up on the short story!

    I also saw that Julia has updated her website with information on the 7th Clare & Russ book, due out Fall ‘09 or Winter ‘10:
    “ONE WAS A SOLDIER, the next Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne novel:
    The Iraq War has been hard on Millers Kill. A maimed Marine, an angry M.P., a doctor trying to deal with his own injuries, and a helicopter pilot who saw more than she could bear hope counselling will enable them to go back to their old lives. But when the war follows a young Army specialist home, tragedy ensues. Chief of police Russ Van Alstyne rules the soldier’s death a suicide—a verdict the Reverend Clare Fergusson vehemently disputes. Now Clare will go against Russ and the MKPD to prove the death a murder—or die trying”

    Of course, it’ll be out in hardback…around Christmas?!

  12. 12
    Teresa says:

    Now I have the hymn stuck in my head—In the Bleak Midwinter.

  13. 13
    Ahlison says:

    publishers pay attention!  I, too, found this via the free give away and quickly purchased the rest.  I’m delighted to hear that there is a date for the next title.  These are a well crafted mystery series and each book brings into focus another segment of Millers Kill (and vicinity) geography and society.  There is not a sour note to be found.  This is a series to which I am holding on, not letting go.

    Lori – the relationship between Russ and Clare will not disappoint or disgust.

    Domy – the title is from the hymn of the same name.  The words are printed at the beginning of the book and I think you will find that it is very evocative of the book.

  14. 14
    darlynne says:

    I resisted this series for so long and now count it as one of my favorites. Each book has ratcheted up the tension and left me literally gasping at the end. The mysteries are not cozy, Clare and Russ are not sleazy, and the stories certainly aren’t religious in the sense of beating readers over the head with any kind of dogma or agenda (all of these nonexistent fears were what kept me away). Two people meet, solve crimes and fall in love; the books are everything SBSarah said above.

  15. 15
    Renee says:

    I’m another one who was introduced to the series thru the 2 free ebooks. The rest (except for the most current, which I read) I listened to in audiobook format, which are excellent productions.

    I’m so happy to hear the new book info has been posted. I’ve been checking JS-F’s site every month or so for updates, but missed this!

  16. 16
    Wavybrains says:

    Lori—Think Sam & Alyssa. Torture. Torture. Torture. But, I’m so glad I hung with the series for them.

  17. 17
    krsylu says:

    SBSarah, your review impressed me so, I immediately went to my library’s website and requested the book. Should have it Thursday or Friday!

  18. 18
    Bonnie says:

    I got the first 2 books of this series from the library … upon reading them, I immediately went to the internets and purchased all her books in hardcover for my very own. They *are* that good. What everyone else has said, and MORE! By not reading these (if they push your personal do-not-read buttons about adultery or religion or whatever), you are missing out on EXCELLENT stories that aren’t what you think they are.

    Not until Fall 09 or Winter 10 for the next one. WAHHH!!!

    seem11 Why yes, these books *do* seem to be better than just a 10!

  19. 19
    orannia says:

    I also love this series. I finished I Shall Not Want last month and immediately emailed the author and asked if there would be a seventh book. Was rapt to hear that there was!

    My only stumbling point was the fourth book….

    The fourth book is written over 24 hours except that at times I forgot that and felt a little uncomfortable at the development of Russ & Clare’s relationship. However, once I remember that important point I felt a lot more comfortable :) I wouldn’t have discovered this series without a spotlight by Keishon at DA. Now I just have to wait for my work colleague to catch up with me so we can discuss it :)

  20. 20


    Thanks for pointing out the story!  I really enjoyed it, and reviewed it on my livejournal here:


    Now I guess I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, huh.

  21. 21
    Jane says:

    Domy – the title is from the hymn of the same name.  The words are printed at the beginning of the book and I think you will find that it is very evocative of the book.

    Domy and Al_the_Girl, all the titles in the series are lines from hymns, mostly ones popular in the Episcopal church.  Being a huge church music nerd (and Episcopalian), it was one of the first things that attracted me to the series.

    The next thing I loved about it, besides the good writing and well-drawn characters, was that the books are actually realistic about what goes on inside a church community.  Lots of love, but *lots* of interpersonal conflict.  Jan Karon’s Mitford books drove me nuts because all her characters were so nice.

  22. 22
    krsylu says:

    ‘Kay. The book arrived as promised, and now I have finished it. Awesome. Thankyouthankyouthankyou! I love the Bitches! You all are just chock full of good ideas for expanding my TBR list.

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