Category Archives: Julia Spencer-Fleming

Waiting For Life to Start*

restlessAs adults, we learn that life isn’t a series of exciting events all in a row. In fact, a lot of us are sustained by the regular routines of our lives. But very often, young people don’t have that perspective. There’s a sense among some young people of waiting for, well, they’re not entirely sure what. But they know they’re waiting for something to happen. Perhaps you remember that same restlessness from your own past.

That sense of waiting can make a person bored and restless. And when that happens it leaves one open to a lot of things that seem new and different, even exciting, at the time, but can quickly become dangerous. So it’s little wonder that we see that plot point, or that sort of character, in crime fiction.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, for instance, we meet Trever Sharp. He’s a bright enough young person, but he’s bored and restless, living in the small Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He doesn’t quite fit in with the other boys at school, and he’s had brushes with the law. Fortunately, he’s been smart enough to steer clear of real trouble. Then he starts spending time with Mick Webster, who is, by nearly anyone’s definition, a juvenile delinquent. Trevor’s father warns him to have nothing to do with Mick, but Trevor is aimless and Mick is interesting and ‘cool.’ DI Alan Banks, who is introduced in this novel, encounters Trevor in the course of investigating a series of break-ins, a peeper who’s making the lives of Eastvale’s women miserable, and a murder. As the novel goes on, we see just how dangerous that restlessness can be.

Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain? introduces readers to twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He’s aimless, bored, and at loose ends. What’s more, he doesn’t have a particular skill or passion, so there’s nothing, really, that interests him. But he does have a driving license. And that’s just what ageing contract killer Simon Marechall needs. He’s nearly at the end of his career, and wants to do one more job before he leaves it. The idea is that Ferrand will drive him to the French coast, where Marechall will take care of his last piece of business. Ferrand agrees; after all, what else is there for him to do? But he doesn’t know, at first, what his new boss’ business is. And by the time he finds out, things have already been set in motion. If you’ve read Garnier, you know that this trip is not going to go well…

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, investigate a strange disappearance. Andreas Winther hasn’t been seen in a few days. His mother Runi gets concerned and visits Sejer. At first, Sejer isn’t sure there’s any cause for worry; there are many reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother where he is. But as more time goes by, Sejer begins to get concerned, too, and looks into the matter. He learns that Andreas and his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe are both rather aimless young men, waiting for something interesting to happen. They do everything together, and it’s very likely that Zipp knows something about what happened to his friend. Sejer becomes even more convinced that Zipp knows more than he’s saying when he interviews him. But Zipp refuses to help. It takes all of Sejer’s skill to find out what, exactly, happened to Andreas and why. And the novel shows what can happen when people have a sense of waiting for something to start their lives.

We see that same sense of waiting and restlessness in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In the Bleak Midwinter. That novel begins when a newborn is found at St. Alban’s (Episcopal) Church in the small town of Miller’s Kill, New York. Not long afterwards, the baby’s biological mother, Katie McWhorter, is found dead in the nearby river. Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne investigates the murder. Meanwhile, Clare Fergusson, who serves as St. Alban’s priest (and, who, incidentally, found the infant), works with Van Alstyne, as she feels a personal sense of responsibility to the people involved. As they look into the case, they interview Katie’s friends and her boyfriend, Ethan Stoner. We learn that many of these young people drink, take drugs, etc. in part because there’s not much for them in Miller’s Kill. They’re restless and bored, and there aren’t many jobs available. That sense of waiting for something isn’t the reason Katie is killed. But it is a part of these young people’s lives.

In Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, high school cheerleaders Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy are in their last year. They’re in charge of the school, as the saying goes, and waiting for their lives to start. Then, a new cheerleading coach, Collette French, is hired. From the beginning, the cheerleading squad is drawn to her, and she makes of the group a sort of special club. Addy, like the others, is a part of that club. But Beth is on the outside looking in, as the saying goes. Everything changes when there’s a suicide (or, perhaps, it wasn’t a suicide). And as the characters deal with what’s happened, we see where feeling a little aimless and restless can eventually lead.

We see that in Emma Cline’s The Girls, too. It’s 1969, and fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd is waiting for something – anything – to happen in her world. She’s bored and aimless, and not sure what comes next. Then, she meets a group of girls in a park and feels drawn to them, especially to a young woman named Suzanne. That’s how she gets involved with a charismatic man named Russell, who seems to have these young women under his spell. Before she knows it, Evie is drawn into this world, and towards some very dark and dangerous places. And it all starts because she’s restless and waiting for whatever comes next.

That’s not unusual for young people (and sometimes people who aren’t so young!). Restlessness does happen, and it can add a layer of tension and character development to a crime novel.


In Memoriam


This post is dedicated to the memory of Charmian Carr, who brought that feeling to life in Robert Wise’s film version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s The Sound of Music.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodger’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Sixteen Going on Seventeen (Reprise).


Filed under Emma Cline, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Karin Fossum, Megan Abbott, Pascal Garnier, Peter Robinson

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

Better Friends Than Lovers*

FriendsOne of the more common undercurrents/subplots in crime fiction happens when the sleuth and another character find themselves in a situation where they could be attracted to each other. A lot of times that possible attraction ends up as a romance or at least a story arc that could lead to a romance. In fact, that’s such a common occurrence that it can be really interesting when it doesn’t happen. It takes a deft hand to create two characters who could easily end up together…but don’t, especially when they are both good people who like each other. But it is realistic. People don’t end up in romantic relationships with every potential partner they meet. And we wouldn’t think much of characters who did, I’d guess.

We see this kind of relationship between Hercule Poirot and the Countess Vera Rossakoff. She is a very skilled jewel thief whom we see in the short stories The Capture of Cerberus  and The Double Clue and the novel The Big Four. She’s on ‘the wrong side of the law’ and doesn’t pretend very hard to be otherwise. And of course, Poirot’s made a career of catching criminals. But the two develop a liking and even respect for each other. You could even argue that Poiot has a sort of ‘crush’ on the countess, and she thinks well of him too. In fact she even helps him in her way to bring down an international criminal conspiracy in The Big Four. But they never fall in love or pursue a relationship although logically they could certainly move in the same circles. Speaking only for myself I’m rather glad that Christie never had them fall in love. The Poirot stories would most emphatically not have been improved, I don’t think, if the two had a romance.

Margaret Coel’s Wind River series features Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden and Father John O’Malley, a Jesuit priest who works at St. Francis Mission near the Wind River Reservation. In their first outing The Eagle Catcher, O’Malley is supposed to meet Arapaho tribal chair Harvey Castle at a gathering. Instead, he finds Castle has been murdered. The police soon begin to suspect that Castle’s nephew Anthony is guilty. And Anthony doesn’t help his case by running off when the police go to his home. He’s soon found and arrested, but claims that he’s innocent. O’Malley calls Holden and asks her to help clear the young man’s name and she agrees. Throughout this series, Holden and O’Malley work together and become friends. Each admits an attraction for the other, too. But they don’t develop a romantic relationship. And that restraint on Coel’s part actually makes the series stronger and more realistic.

Julia Spencer-Fleming shows a similar restraint in her series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and Miller’s Kill, NY, Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne. Beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter, when Fergusson begins her life in Miller’s Kill, she and Van Alstyne work together on a series of murder investigations. In A Fountain Filled With Blood, for instance, two gay men are attacked during a gay-bashing spree. Then, as if that weren’t enough, property developer Bill Ingraham, who’s also gay, is murdered. So Fergusson and Van Alstyne are facing both a wave of hate crime and the investigation of a murder that may or may not be related to the other attacks. In the course of the series, Fergusson and Van Alstyne become friends and they both admit they are attracted to each other. But they don’t develop a romance. Van Alstyne is married and has no reason to want to divorce his wife. And even though Fergusson is not barred by her faith from marrying, she has her public image as a member of the clergy to consider. Spencer-Fleming balances carefully the natural attraction these two people feel for each other and the realities that keep them from becoming a couple.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant has several good friends who get drawn into his cases and are often very helpful. One of them is former supermodel Jared Lowe. Quant and Lowe have a strong friendship and in the beginning of the series Quant even admits he’s had a secret crush on Lowe. But neither really pursues the relationship and in this series, that makes sense. For one thing, Lowe’s partner is Quant’s good friend and mentor Anthony Gatt. And although that relationship has its stresses and rough times, Lowe loves his partner. And Quant is very fond of Gatt too, and respects him. Not to mention that as a result of what happens in Stain of the Berry, Lowe has other issues to deal with besides any attraction he might feel towards Quant. So although the two have more than one opportunity to be together, a romance never develops between them. And that restraint makes the series that much more believable and the characters more likeable.

In Steve Robinson’s In the Blood, we are introduced to Washington, DC genealogist Jefferson Tayte. Successful entrepreneur Walter Sloane hires Tayte to chart his wife’s family history, and Tayte accepts the commission. His search reveals that one of those ancestors James Fairborne returned to England with his family in 1783. But oddly enough, no-one in that family appears on any record after that time. In fact, records show that Fairborne married again less than two years after his return to England. Sloane commissions Tayte to follow up on that part of the family story and Tayte travels to England. There he meets Amy Fallon, who lost her husband Gabriel two years earlier in a storm-related boating tragedy. Fallon has recently found a very old writing box that is closely related to the mystery Tayte is investigating. So together, the two of them look into what really happened to the Fairborne family and how that history is related to two modern-day deaths that occur. They find out the truth about the Fairbornes, but although they become friends in the process, they don’t fall in love. In this case, it’s not that either is attached (although Fallon still grieves for her husband). Rather, they simply aren’t right for each other. They have very different lives, so it wouldn’t be realistic anyway for them to suddenly fall in love; the story is more credible as it is than it would be if they started a romance.

There are also of course many examples of police detectives who work together but don’t fall in love. I’m thinking for instance of Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard, and of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti and Claudia Griffoni. Those series work better because the detectives don’t have romantic relationships. This is just my opinion, so do feel free to differ with me if you do, but I find it refreshing when two fictional characters can work together and even be good friends without necessarily starting an affair. What do you think?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Michael Lovesmith, made popular by Aretha Franklin.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Leon, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Katherine Howell, Margaret Coel, Steve Robinson

Brave Ones, Standing Tall*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog, then you know that I don’t usually continue a topic from one day into the next. That can get tiresome, so I generally avoid it. But as I was putting together my last post, it occurred to me that there are a lot of fictional sleuths who’ve served their country in the armed forces. The military/sleuthing connection makes sense if you think about it; there are certainly some similarities between what cops and other professional detectives do and what members of the military do. So I hope you’ll be kind enough to indulge me going on about this just a bit…

Agatha Christie’s Captain Arthur Hastings is a former member of the military, although he’s not a career soldier. We learn about his service in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, when he spends time at the home of his friend John Cavendish. In this novel, Hastings has been wounded in battle and has just spent a month in a convalescent home. Now he’s on a month’s leave and has been invited to spend it with the Cavendish family at their home Styles Court. Hastings discovers that his friend Hercule Poirot, who’s been displaced by the war, is staying in the nearby village of Styles St. Mary. When the family matriarch Emily Inglethorp is poisoned, Hastings asks Poirot to investigate the case. Poirot is only too glad to assist, since the victim was his benefactor.

Hasting’s war service is mentioned again in The Murder on the Links, in which he and Poirot investigate the stabbing death of Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. The story begins while Hastings is traveling on a train on business. The train passes through some of the World War I battlefields, and a young woman he meets makes mention of the war. Hastings tells her a bit about his service. He doesn’t expect to meet her again, but when he and Poirot begin to investigate the Renauld murder, he finds that there is a connection between his fellow passenger and the murder.

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee is also a military veteran. The novels don’t spend a lot of time discussing his service, but it’s meant something to him. In The Lonely Silver Rain, for instance, he’s hired by Billy Ingraham, an old friend who’s made good, to find Ingraham’s stole boat. McGee finds the boat, but when he goes on board, he also finds three dead bodies, including that of the daughter of a Peruvian diplomat. McGee himself comes under suspicion, which puts his life in danger. So he’s going to have to find out who the murderer is, and that’s not much safer for him. It turns out that the boat theft and murders are related to “turf wars” between established Florida Mafiosos and a new generation of “drug barons,” and McGee isn’t safe from either of them. At one point, McGee is trying to get some information from one of the minor drug bosses, who insists on being paid. McGee goes to the bank where he has money stored in a safety-deposit box:


“I have it [the safety-deposit box] only because there are a few little items I would not care to have sunk or burned. Pictures of my mother and father and brother, all long gone. Birth certificate. Army discharge. Some yellowed clippings of my brief prowess as a tight end before they spoiled my knees. One theater ribbon, one Purple Heart, one Silver Star with citation for Sergeant McGee.


This novel is the twenty-first and last of the Travis McGee novels, and what’s interesting is the major piece of McGee’s life that we discover in the story. As an aside, one wonders what MacDonald might have done with the character had he lived.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has also seen military service. During the Vietnam war, he was a “tunnel rat” – one of a group of men who were sent in to destroy underground complexes that the Viet Cong has built. That service comes back to haunt him, you might say, in The Black Echo. In that novel, in which we meet Bosch for the first time, he’s just been demoted to the Hollywood Homicide Division of the L.A.P.D. When the body of William “Billy” Meadows is discovered in a drainpipe, it appears that it’s just one more junkie’s death. But it turns out that Bosch knew Meadows, who was a fellow “tunnel rat.” Bosch doesn’t believe that this is just a case of an overdose, and begins to investigate the case as murder. And as it turns out, he’s right. Meadows’ death is connected to a major bank robbery, and Bosch finds that more is at stake than just a haul of money.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. Before he became a cop, Rebus served in the U.K.’s Special Air Service (SAS). That service background turns out to be very helpful to him in Knots and Crosses, in which he makes his debut. In that novel, a mysterious killer called The Strangler is kidnapping and killing young Edinburgh girls. There’s a media frenzy since the police can’t seem to catch the killer, but there are no really tangible clues. Meanwhile, Rebus has been receiving cryptic letters and even more cryptic knots as “calling cards.” He dismisses them as cranks, but there’s much more to them than that. When Rebus’ own daughter Samantha “Sam” is abducted by the Strangler, Rebus has no choice but to explore his past, from which he’s been running. With help from his hypnotist brother Michael, Rebus tells the story of his S.A.S. service, and it’s there that we find the key to catching The Strangler.

Julia Spencer-Fleming’s created a very interesting veteran-turned-sleuth. She is the Reverand Clare Fergusson. Fergusson was a combat helicopter pilot for the Eighteenth Airborne Corps who’s now an Episcopal priest in Miller’s Kill, New York. When we first meet her in In the Bleak Midwinter, Fergusson’s first outing, she is getting accustomed to the religious life, the small town in which she now lives, and the coming difficult winter weather. Then a baby is abandoned at the church, and his young mother is brutally murdered. Fergusson, who found the baby, works with Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne to find out who the killer is.

Zoë Sharp’s Charlotte “Charlie” Fox is also a veteran. She was in the British Army until one particular traumatic incident caused her discharge. In her first outing, Killer Instinct, Fox is teaching self-defence classes for women, many of whom have been residents at a local women’s shelter. One night, Fox and a friend are at karaoke night at the New Adelphi Club. Fox’s friend gets into a scuffle with another patron, Susie Hollings, and Fox gets involved in the fray. When Hollings is found dead not long afterwards, the police naturally are interested in Fox. Fox soon learns that Hollings was raped before she was killed, and that not many weeks earlier, another local girl was raped and nearly killed. Fox suspects a connection between the two incidents and the club, so when she gets the chance at a job at the club, she takes it. Then there’s another death and Fox soon finds herself the killer’s next target.

There are several other fictional sleuths such as James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux who have served in the military. There are lots of others, too. It’s an interesting connection that can add some depth and richness to their characters. And a sleuth’s past in the military can also add some interesting plot devices. Which of your favourite sleuths are veterans?




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s Out of Harm’s Way.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, John D. MacDonald, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Michael Connelly, Zoë Sharp