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.