Wednesday, September 15

In the Bleak Midwinter – Julia Spencer-Fleming

It was a bitterly cold night in Miller’s Kill when Clare Fergusson found an abandoned, but well wrapped, newborn at the door of her Episcopal church. A newcomer to the small New York town, Clare is used to the surprise of being a woman and a minister, just like she was used to being the only female helicopter pilot in her Army squad.
When she meets police chief Russ Van Alstynne at the hospital she instantly discovers a lot in common, starting with their shared military backgrounds and not extending to their faiths. Shepherds, in different ways, for their town, they team together to discover the identity of at least the mother, to make sure her decision to give up her clearly cared-for child was voluntary. The note attached directs the baby boy to a wealthy couple desperate for a child – when the body of a young woman who recently delivered a child is found later that evening, Clare and Russ have to ask how desperate Geoff and Karen Burns really are.
I immediately engaged with the writing, characters and plot of In the Bleak Midwinter. The interweaving of faith meeting agnosticism, big city and country, minister and police office were beautiful. I found the characterisation beautifully realised, and really liked Clare’s discussion with town dispatcher Helene about prayer:
“I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending us His spirit, giving us strength and peace and insight. I don’t think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen.”
Helene frowned. “In other words, sometimes the answer is no?”
“No. Sometimes the answer is, ‘This is life, in all its variety. Make your way through it with grace, and never forget that I love you.”
The exploration of religion, practice and belief comes from Russ, who bother wonders about aspects of Clare’s faith – what, for example, is a calling? It’s not a huge presence in the book, but it’s clear that this is significant to Clare, and makes her occupation more an integral component of her personality and being than a quirky twist to breathe life into a familiar genre.
Clare confronts her own share of prejudices, both directed at her and about her previously unexplored beliefs about obesity which, though only a paragraph and part-way through the text, I found interesting and warmed me to an author I was already fully engaged with. A slightly stronger, but also sympathetic, perspective on care of the elderly cemented my connection, while adding another element that raised In the Bleak Midwinter above the average mystery novel.
Running through the novel, from their first meeting, is a strong physical attraction so delicately drawn that it’s only at the novel’s end that the characters acknowledge it. And, by adding the frustratingly delicious element of Russ’s not wholly compatible but until now satisfactory enough marriage, it’s a bond that cannot be strengthened. The last scene, where the mutual interest and almost magnetic physical draw to one another is finally brought into the open, only to be clearly shut down, was achingly perfect and consistent with both characters.
I so thoroughly enjoyed, and immersed myself in, this multiple award winning first novel that I’ve already reserved the next two in the series, and eagerly await their availability at my library. I feel anticipatory satisfaction at the reading of them already – no pressure, Ms Spencer-Fleming! – Alex

The 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

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