Millers Kill police chief Russ Van Aldyne has told his wife Linda about the deep attraction between him and Episcopalian priest Clare Fergusson, and Linda has kicked him out of the family home. Moving back home with his mother is surprisingly not the worst thing - Russ is torn between the love he still has for a beautiful, vibrant woman who's done nothing to deserve this, and the sheer rightness of his every interaction with the former marine chopper pilot who's been called to a higher purpose. Though the two have vowed not to see each other, in a small town crossing paths is inevitable.
All this drama pales markedly, though, once the bloody, disfigured body of Linda Van Alstyne is found in their home - Russ is obviously the most obvious suspect, but his team know he couldn't have done it, and begin exploring other avenues. When one of his staff, agitated that the most obvious suspect - Clare - isn't even being looked at, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation is contacted. Investigator Emiley Jensen has a theory of the crime that prominently features Russ, which is a pity, because he has an alternate theory, one that will be difficult to explore under the uncompromising, unrelenting and prejudicial gaze of BCI's investigator.
In common with the other books thus far in the series, there's more to the novel than this central plot - while less rooted in the interconnectedness inherent in small town life, some aspects of this are touched on. There's also a reappearance of the surprisingly sympathetic Father Aberforth, and the emergence of a new character, Deacon Elizabeth De Groot, who's impossibly perky and annoying, which is far more fun to read about than to experience. We also get to see Linda for the first time, not just as a bit character but as a person in her own right - a little of her past, her friendships in Millers Kill, and the development of her soft furnishing designing company.
It's been increasingly clear that, being the principled individuals they are, the only way Clare and Russ could be together would be if he divorced or Linda died. While murder didn't feature strongly in my prediction of this story arc, it's not a total surprise given the genre. In Spencer-Fleming's hands the initial scene comes as a shock, the responses of the main characters are true and convincing,
and I was particularly impressed by her deft handling and portrayal of Russ's grief at the death of his estranged but loved wife. We also revisit his conflict at loving two women, most poignantly in a flashback a week or so before Linda's body was found, where he and Clare have an emotionally intimate discussion on the topic.
The twists of the plot are believable but not obvious; though I saw the penultimate surprise coming a little way ahead, the writing was so effective that almost didn't matter. The ending is particularly powerful and well written, coming to me as a complete shock. All Mortal Flesh ends with a rift between Russ and Clare that will be difficult to overcome, and a really big obstacle to overcome. I know it's not the end of the line for them, though, because I've got the next book waiting for me at home. - 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