In the bleak midwinter

Title: In the Bleak Midwinter  (Clare Fergusson #1)

Author: Julia Spencer-Fleming

Published: March 4, 2002

Category: Mystery

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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Purchase:  Amazon | IndieBound | Book Depository

Heavy Snow…Icy Desires…Cold-Blooded Murder
Clare Fergusson, St. Alban’s new priest, fits like a square peg in the conservative Episcopal parish at Millers Kill, New York. She is not just a “lady,” she’s a tough ex-Army chopper pilot, and nobody’s fool. Then a newborn infant left at the church door brings her together with the town’s police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, who’s also ex-Army and a cynical good shepherd for the stray sheep of his hometown. Their search for the baby’s mother quickly leads them into the secrets that shadow Millers Kill like the ever-present Adirondacks. What they discover is a world of trouble, an attraction to each other—and murder…

It’s a little odd that this is the second mystery I’ve reviewed this year and both have had members of the clergy as the protagonist. What makes priests or preachers such compelling detectives? First, they tend to be trusted members of the community, people others are willing to share their secrets with. Second, they know that each person has faults and virtues, that we are all sinners but, they tend to believe, not beyond God’s forgiveness. And yet neither of the books, In the Bleak Midwinter or Twelve Drummers Drumming have felt “religious” to me. Yes, each of the priest sleuths have strong Christian beliefs and sheare those with their parishioners and in their own thoughts and musing, but I did not feel like I was being preached to.

Clare is new to Miller’s Kill, but jumps right into the community and the plight of the parentless child on the doorstep with both feet. She’s a tough lady, but almost overly caring. She wants to help everyone, which fits her character, but at some points it seemed a little overboard, especially for someone new to the community, who was also preparing for services at Christmas time, making home visitis, attending meetings. She just had a lot going on, but she seemed capable of handling all of it. I’m a little uncomfortable with her relationship with the police chief, Russ. He’s a good guy, don’t get me wrong, and he doesn’t seem happy in his marriage. I can understand him being attracted to Clare, but she’s a priest. Granted, Episcopalian priests are not celibate, but I think she should have been smarter. Don’t worry, they don’t actually get together, but you can certainly wonder if they might eventually.

The setting, upstate New York in the winter, is captured perfectly, or at least I imagine it is, having never been there at all, let alone in the winter. Cold, unforgiving weather, wilderness areas where you could be lost for days. I can see how being out in the weather, unprepared, could be truly dangerous, which is why I wanted to yell at Clare more than once. Don’t you hate when they insist on doing stupid things and just won’t listen?

The mystery was good. After Clare and Russ start digging into the baby’s background, a girl’s body is found frozen, knocked out and left to die. I suspected several people over the course of the story. Looking back now though, I think the final motive was weak. When I was listening to the book, I was caught up in the action, the secrets, the amibitions, but now I’m not sure that the killer’s decisions were feasible. I think the atmosphere and characters outweigh this small quibble though.

I listened to this on audio, which ran 12 hours 58 minutes, and I have to say the reader, Suzanne Toren, did a fantastic job, especially with Clare’s voice. The soft accent kept her from being too sharp-edged and reminded me that essentially she is still an outsider in the town.

Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Series

  1. In the Bleak Midwinter
  2. A Fountain Filled with Blood
  3. Out of the Deep I Cry
  4. To Darkness and to Death
  5. All Mortal Flesh
  6. I Shall Not Want
  7. One Was a Soldier
  8. Through the Evil Days (due June 18, 2013)

Challenge: WAYR

By the way, I changed my review format slightly. What do you think: good, bad, not worth noticing?