In The Spotlight: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In The Bleak Midwinter

>In The Spotlight: Kel Robertson's Smoke and MirrorsHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series has gotten a great deal of critical and popular praise since its debut. It’s about time this feature included one of the novels, so let’s do that today, and turn the spotlight on In The Bleak Midwinter, the first in the series.

It’s not long before Christmas, and Clare Fergusson has just started in her new position as Episcopal priest at St. Alban’s, in small-town Miller’s Kill, New York. One evening after a welcoming event, Fergusson discovers a newborn baby on the steps of the church. A note left with the baby indicates that his name is Cody, and that he’s to be given to local residents Geoff and Karen Burns. After ensuring that the baby is in no medical danger, he’s placed with a foster family while a search is made for one or both of his biological parents.

Shortly after that, Miller’s Kill Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne is on patrol when he discovers the body of eighteen-year-old Katie McWhorter in the kill – the river – for which the town is named. It’s too much of a coincidence in such a small town for the baby’s appearance and Katie’s death not to be connected. And it’s soon established that the victim had given birth shortly before her death. So Van Alstyne begins with the circle of people who were involved with the possible adoption.

And that leaves open several possibilities. There are the Burns, of course. They’ve been waiting for years to adopt, and when it comes out that Katie might have changed her mind about giving Cody up, they look like very likely suspects. There’s also Katie’s father, who could have had his own reasons. And there’s her boyfriend, Ethan Stoner. If the baby is his, he might have every reason not to want Katie to change her mind. And if the baby is someone else’s, that gives him a whole range of other possible motives.

In the meantime, Clare is getting to know the people of her parish. And, since she’s the one who found Cody, she feels a sense of personal responsibility to find out how he got to her and what happened to his parents. As she gets to know Katie’s family and the people who knew her, she begins to find out more and more about this case. And she and Russ Van Alstyne both begin to get some answers.

Then there’s another murder. Now it looks as though whoever killed Katie is willing to kill again to make sure no-one finds out. Sometimes together and sometimes separately, Clare and Russ work to find out who committed the murders, and what the truth is about Cody. To learn this, they have to untangle a network of relationships and past history in Miller’s Kill.

This novel is, in a lot of ways, a traditional mystery. There are murders, there are suspects, and there are sleuths who put together the clues to the mystery. It’s also traditional in the sense that the violence is not gory or excessive. But you couldn’t call this a light novel. The truth behind the murders is very sad, even ugly. And Spencer-Fleming doesn’t gloss over the heartbreak and devastation that comes to the families involved. Still, readers who dislike a lot of violence will appreciate the fact that a lot of it is ‘off stage,’ and it’s not excessive.

The story is told from Russ’ and Clare’s viewpoints (third person, past tense). The stories alternate and weave together, but (at least for me) it’s very clear whose point of view is being shared. And this approach allows readers to learn about both characters.

Clare is a former military helicopter pilot who decided to study for the Episcopal priesthood after a family tragedy. She’s originally from Virginia, so her first winter in upstate New York is, to say the least, a rude awakening about cold weather. She’s tough and smart – certainly not a ‘damsel in distress.’ That said though, she’s no superhero. She makes mistakes, and she sometimes acts without thinking of the legal ramifications. But she has her own kind of wisdom, and truly feels committed to helping the people of her congregation and seeing them as whole people, however flawed.

For his part, Russ is a recovering alcoholic. He’s married, and in a more or less stable life. Readers who are tired of drunken, dysfunctional coppers who can’t manage their lives will appreciate that. He’s thoroughly knowledgeable about the area, and has his own understanding of the people who live there.

What’s particularly interesting about Russ and Clare is their relationship. As fans of this series know, they don’t hop into bed together. Each is attracted to the other, and they admit it. They complement each other, and they feel very comfortable with each other. And they know they work well as a team. But they know the consequences of getting involved romantically. This isn’t one of those ‘will they or won’t they’ sort of novels.

Another important element in the novel is the setting. The series takes place in rural upstate New York, about an hour from Albany. It’s a place of natural beauty and sometimes rugged, dangerous terrain. The people of Miller’s Kill know each other, and there is that small-town feel about the novel.

One of the truths about this town is that there are some stark socioeconomic disparities among the residents. There are well-off people (the Burns, for instance, are both attorneys who do quite well). There are also plenty of people from the ‘wrong side of town.’ The McWhorter family, for instance, are what one character calls ‘trash.’ Those disparities play a role in the novel, and it’s interesting to see how they impact the way the characters interact.

In The Bleak Midwinter is the story of what happens when murder comes to a small town in upstate New York. It shows how people’s lives intersect, and how those lives change when one person is killed. It features two sleuths, a newcomer and a native, who complement each other and who each lend strengths to the investigation. But what’s your view? Have you read In The Bleak Midwinter? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 26 September/Tuesday, 27 September – Happiness is Easy – Edney Silvestre

Monday, 3 October/Tuesday, 4 October – The Good Boy – Teresa Schwegel

Monday, 10 October/Tuesday, 11 October – Inside the Black Horse – Ray Berard


Filed under In The Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming

37 responses to “In The Spotlight: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In The Bleak Midwinter

  1. Keishon

    The relationship between the priest and the cop in this series is a problematic for some readers but I’ve enjoyed the series thus far. I still have the last two to read one day soon. Glad to see you spotlight her work, Margot.

    • Keishon

      To add: one of the things I liked about reading JSF was her inclusion of hotbed issues like the environment and autism/vaccines….I read her books as they came out and found such issues topical. I remember Maxine read this book but I don’t think she enjoyed the rest. How far did you get Margot?

    • Thanks, Keishon. And I agree with you about the relationship between Fergusson and Van Alstyne. I think Spencer-Fleming handles it well.

  2. You’ve got a bunch of books lined up that are completely unfamiliar to me – so I look forward to learning more about them (and hope I won’t be too tempted – at least until I get more shelves).

  3. Margot, this is one I have read. And I enjoyed it. But I never kept reading the series past this book. I don’t know why. I have a few more books in the series, but I never get motivated to read them.

    • It’s interesting how that happens, Tracy. I’ve started series, as well, but never went beyond the first book – even if I enjoyed it. I think it’s a matter of time and competition for attention.

  4. Although I thought this well-written (and certainly the characters are brilliantly developed), I haven’t read past this first one, either but I know exactly why. The relationship between Claire and Russ is very problematic for me and I disagree that this isn’t a “will they or won’t they” book/series. I’m even stronger disposed to feel that way since reading a synopsis of the latest in the series that begins “It’s shortly after Russ & Claire’s wedding . . .” Perhaps Russ’ wife has an affair and leaves the marriage (wouldn’t that be convenient?) or perhaps not. I’m just not inclined to find out when there are so many other series out there that I enjoy.

    Great analysis, by the way 🙂

    • Thanks, Debbie, both for the kind words and your candor. You’re certainly not alone in your feelings about the two protagonists. Their relationship does bother some people for the reasons you’ve outlined. As you say, they are both well-developed characters, but there are plenty of folks who aren’t crazy about their relationship.

  5. Excellent review, Margot. No, I haven’t read the book, but now I want to. (Oh, if I only had the time!). I’ll probably go buy it now. I love these small town settings, the characters sound interesting, and the mystery begs to be solved. You hooked me! 🙂

    • Thanks, Michael. And I know just exactly what you mean about not having enough time. I really wish there were fifty hours in a day, so that I could read all that I want to read. It still wouldn’t be enough, but it would be a start. As far as the book goes, it really does offer a solid look at the small town. And (at least for me) it’s not stereotyped, either. By that I mean that not everyone in town is an ignorant backwoods rube who’s suspicious of ‘them city folk.’ There are highly educated people, much less educated people, and so on. It’s an interesting group of characters.

  6. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    In The Spotlight: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In The Bleak Midwinter

  7. Oh I do love a good small town crime novel and this sounds like a good one – the pairing of characters on different social scales is interesting too, especially in this context.

    • I thought that discussion of different social classes was done quite effectively, Cleo. It plays a role in the story, and I think that the characters in the different groups are depicted authentically.

  8. This does sound good, but to be honest I’m so tired of detectives who are alcoholics, recovering or otherwise. Clearly loads of people must enjoy reading about people struggling with alcoholism, but I always have to ask what does it add to the story? If there must be filler, I wish it could be more entertaining filler. Like Wolfe with his orchids, perhaps, or Kojak with his lollies… 😉

    • You have a point, FictionFan; orchids and lollies are a lot more innovative than drink. I do understand your caution about that aspect of Russ Van Alstyne’s character. And everyone has a different tolerance level (yes, pun intended 😉 ) for that character trait. If you do decide to try this one at some point, I hope you’ll like it.

  9. Glad to hear the relationship is not an obvious romantic one (not that there is anything wrong with that!) and focus’ primarily on the character interaction – thanks Margot – and I always enjoy starting at the beginning, so thanks for that also 🙂

    • I’m with you, Sergio; I like to start a series at the beginning, myself. And, yes, the characters and their interactions play crucial roles in the story. Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  10. Col

    I like dual narratives in books and it does sound quite interesting, but too many other things on my plate already!

  11. This is one book I’ve read and enjoyed. I also read several others in the series, but sadly I haven’t continued reading the series. I didn’t lose interest in it, I just got sidetracked by other stories and haven’t found my way back yet. I liked the two main characters and their interaction. A good reminder of an enjoyable series. Thanks!

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mason. I know what you mean, too, about enjoying a series, but not getting the chance to keep up with it. There are so many series that I’d like to catch up with, but there aren’t enough hours in a day.

  12. This book sat in my attic bedroom for years. Haven’t seen it since we moved. Too bad.

  13. Love books set in small towns. The location really adds to the suspense, at least for me it does.

    • I think the location really does add to this particular story, Sue. Admittedly, most people don’t think of upstate New York as really New England, and there are differences. But I’ll bet some of the setting would seem very familiar to you.

  14. It sounds like the main female character would be a delight to read, given her diverse background!

    • She really is an interesting character, GtL. And (at least for me), she’s a strong character without having that ‘superhero-save-the-day’ lack of credibility.

  15. I read this when it first came out, and remember enjoying it very much – I loved the picture of the small-town, and the relationship between the two main characters. But I’m like Tracy – for some reason I didn’t pursue the series (I think I read the 2nd one and found it too violent?) – maybe I should pick it up again.

    • I like the small-town setting of this book very much, too, Moira. It’s well-depicted. And we do get to know the two characters fairly well. About keeping up with the series? I’ve done that, too – started a series, enjoyed the first, or even the second, novel, and then not gone back. One big issue is time: it’s hard to find time to read everything.

  16. I read this too and have since gone on to read the rest of the books in the series. This first book won almost every prize that year and deserved it. I’ve met the author too and she is a delight and a major Boston Red Sox fan.

    • Thanks, Yvette, for that personal glimpse of Spencer-Fleming. It’s so nice to know it when an author is also a delightful person and pleasant to meet. And I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the series so much, too.

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