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