Saturday, October 23

Out of the Deep I Cry - Julia Spencer-Fleming

The past ripples through time to the present, wherever one is. When Clare Fergusson, Episcopal priest of Millers Kill, melting snow trickling down the embrasure and puddling on the sill of the stained glass window, it's the first sign of impending trouble - the roof of St. Alban's can no longer be patched but must be comprehensively repaired - no mean feat when money's tight everywhere. Her pleas for funding are met by elderly Mrs Marshall, who offers to dissolve the Ketcham Family Trust, created by her mother in the fifties and used until now to fund a health clinic for the poor and uninsured.
As a contemporary mystery - the disappearance of clinic doctor Allan Rouse, perhaps at the hands of anti-vaccine campaigner Debba Clowe - is investigated by Millers Kill police chief Russ van Alstyne, details of a tragedy almost eighty years old begin to emerge; and threaded throughout is the ongoing, deepening attraction between Clare and the inconveniently married Russ, a connection that a brush with almost certain death forces them to acknowledge, and to finally name - love.
Spencer-Fleming packs so much into her novels - i intertwining plots, strong characters, forbidden romance and pitch-perfect dialogue. Deftly woven in are details about Prohibition and other historical accuracies, and she has a keen understanding of human psychology, particularly parental.
The heart of Out of the Deep I Cry, though, is epidemic illness and vaccination - fears about the use of the first antidiphtheria serum in 1924, the wildfire speed with which unchecked illness rampages, the devastating swathe it cuts, the inability of contemporary culture to appreciate this after decades safe from pandemic disease, and the fallacy of a thiomersal/autism connection. The writing is so incisive, clear and evocative that I feel strongly that Spencer-Fleming intended to convey a clear message, one I fully support.
In lesser hands this could have been strident, diminishing the power of the text as a whole. Here, however, it is an integral part of the plot, seamlessly integrated and beautifully conveyed. The passages where modern concerns about the alleged ills of vaccinations are contrasted with strikingly similar (and identically baseless) concerns from over eight decades ago, are subtle and well crafted.
The novel is chronologically layered, so that each time line unfolds with internal linearity but the present is interfolded with the seventies, the fifties and the twenties. This technique allows the precipitating events, some eighty-five years ago, to only slowly emerge, devastatingly exposed almost at the end.
The novel finishes, though, with its engine. The driving heart of the series is the relationship between Russ and Clare, both honourable people committed to the vows they took long before they met. An affair is an anathema to them both, but the measures they've taken thus far have done naught to dampen the mutual feelings of respect, attraction and intellectual pull they feel. I so look forward to seeing where Spencer-Fleming takes them next. - 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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