Millers Kill police chief Russ Van Alstyne and Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson have confessed their love for one another, as well as their determination not to act upon it. Russ still loves his unsuspecting wife, despite her distraction with her new career as a decorator, and her current focus on preparations for the luxury hotel about to usher in a tourist boom – opening night is just around the corner.
Clare’s suitor, Brit Hugh Partiger, is coming to Millers Kill from New York city for the weekend, and she expects him to press harder about the direction their relationship is heading, a discussion she feels ill-equipped to have while her heart and her thought are otherwise occupied. In truth her thoughts are almost equally occupied with concerns about the imminent arrival of the bishop on his annual visit as with Russ, particularly because of the guilt she feels about her illicit relationship – aside from a kiss, nothing untoward has happened, but thought as well as deeds can be cause for sin.
But there are bigger issues brewing than either Russ or Clare can predict – a local heiress has gone missing in the snowy woods, and this is just the first part in a cascade of blackmail, kidnapping, arson and murder.
The mystery plot thread is well executed, with a confusion of young blondes, erstwhile rescuers, and deep-seated rage. Spencer-Fleming is masterful in her ability to portray emotion, from the careless teasing of a confident young woman with an under-developed sense of danger, and the frustration of a feckless man with no insight always looking for the easy way out, to the battle between duty and desire that threads through the series. She also does a wonderful job creating layers of meaning, from the interwoven texture of small town life, where history is present and relationships are complex, to imparting knowledge to readers that the characters don’t have, so that the reader than sees events and responses differently than the characters. It’s difficult to discuss this without giving away essential plot points, but the scene in the section set at 12:30PM (page 119 in the hardback edition) is a particularly strong example.
There are, of course, other elements, including the nice mirroring of Russ and Linda’s relationship with another marriage where, though the content is different, the wife and husband have very different pictures of the way their life together is progressing. The exploration of the opposing views of conservationists and loggers was particularly interesting coming from an Australian perspective – when the former talk about allowing the woods to be restored to their native state I was strongly reminded of local clear felling and underbrush clearing taking place in the lead up to bushfire season in one of the most bushfire prone places in the world.
For me, though, the heart of this series is the unfolding of the relationship between two irresistibly attracted, principled people. As their lives intertwine, Russ and Clare find only deeper attraction and compatibility. In To Darkness and To Death Clare also has her first opportunities to speak with someone else about her relationship with Russ – first with Hugh, who catches the pair in the vicarage in a non-compromising but intimate scene, and then with Father Aberforth, the stern and observant deacon sent by the diocese to determine how she should be disciplined for a break from the Bishop’s rulings. And the novel ends with Russ declaring, before he and Clare waltz in the moonlight, that he will tell Linda about his feelings for Clare, a move that had me immediately pick up the next in the series. - 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