‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is the first book in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s ‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’, originally published in 2002. The series currently stands at eight books, with a ninth due out in the Fall of this year.
I don’t read much crime fiction, but the series I do read I am unfailingly loyal to – Karin Slaughter’s ‘Grant County’ and ‘Will Trent’ series mostly. Normally Slaughter’s instalments are all the crime-fic I need; occasionally I’ll venture to lightweight “cozy mysteries”, but Slaughter is the only hard-boiled I read religiously and that’s mostly thanks to her books being so cutthroat and gruesome they’re about all I can stomach. Balancing out Slaughter’s macabre explorations is the other reason I stick so closely to her crime series – the characters and their complex relationships. For that reason, whenever I get the occasional whim to go looking for a new crime series to tide me over, I always look for something that also balances the thriller/relationships ratio. And now I think I’ve found it in Spencer-Fleming’s ‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’.
I do so love discovering a series with a hefty backlist for me to dive into, but before I started the ‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’, I wanted some assurances that there was some sort of emotional exploration running through the books to propel the characters as much as their search for justice with each new instalment. I can’t read something like ‘Jack Reacher’, I’ve tried, but a series in which a protagonist blows in and blows out of towns and leaves a trail of conquests in his wake (never to be seen again) is just not for me. I want relationships to carry the series, as much as a good whodunit with each new book. So when I read a lengthy (spoiler-y!) review of the series on ‘Heroes and Heartbreakers’, I was thrilled. Janga provides a quote from Spencer-Fleming, about her initial idea for the series;
"I knew I wanted to tell a love story about a brand-new female Episcopal priest and a married small-town chief of police. I knew I wanted it to be smart, and grown-up, and to ask questions like, “What do we sacrifice to honor our commitments?” and “What if finding your soul mate only leads to heartache?” I didn’t know if the ending would be happy or tragic. I didn’t know if I could balance the story of Russ and Clare, and the people of Millers Kill whose lives intersect with theirs, and the demands of a tightly-plotted mystery. I really didn’t know the central question over five—soon to be six—books was going to be: Will they or won’t they?"
That’s the opening to the series in a nutshell - Rev. Clare Fergusson is the new Episcopal priest in the town of Millers Kill, and she meets local police chief Russ Van Alstyne a few months into her job when a baby boy is left on the parish doorstep … when the baby’s suspected mother turns up dead, Clare and Russ work together to solve the mystery.
The whodunit of this first book is a good one that left me guessing till the last chapter. The abandonment of a newborn babe and murder of the baby’s mother – both of which have connections to Clare’s church – means that this case has the new Priest examining her congregation very closely and getting to know them quite intimately.
Of course the real draw-card of this book is the partnership of Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne. Clare is an ex fighter pilot, and Russ is a Vietnam Vet quite a few years older than Clare, self-proclaimed atheist and married to boot. These two get along like a house-on-fire from the first – both of them straight shooters who normally play their cards close to their chests, but with one another they find an unlikely and instantaneous friendship … then over the course of this first book, something more heated comes to the surface. Julia Spencer-Fleming weaves a darn good whodunit, but it’s the tangled web of Russ and Clare’s forbidden attraction that has ensured I’ll be delving into her eight-book backlist pronto!
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