A Fountain Filled with Blood

Fountain Filled with BloodThis is the second book in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series of mystery novels about Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. The first, In the Bleak Midwinteris a good solid mystery that introduces two appealing characters and offers a strong sense of place in its depictions of the small upstate New York town of Millers Kill. I’m sorry to report that this book does not live up to the promise of the first.

A Fountain Filled with Blood begins with an assault on medical examiner Emil Dvorak. Just before the attack, Emil was leaving a dinner party at an inn owned by his friends Steve and Ron when a group of men in a red truck drove by, shouting homophobic epithets. The assumption is that these men followed Emil and attacked him on his drive home. At the time of the attack, Clare was with Emil’s partner, Paul, at a town meeting about the potential environment impacts of a new resort being built in the area. So she’s on hand when Russ turns up to tell Paul.

Not long after that, a young man named Todd is attacked as he’s closing up his video store. No money was taken from the cash register, so Clare and Russ must consider the possibility that Millers Kill is facing a spate of homophobic hate crimes. What’s the best way for the police and for the church to respond?

The most appealing aspect of the first book was the characterization of Clare and Russ. In them, Spencer-Fleming has created two flawed but likable people who are struggling to do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong thing. The two quickly become friends, but that friendship between the married police chief and the single priest grows into a mutual attraction that they never acknowledge to each other but can’t get out of their heads. When this book begins, they’ve managed to avoid each other for six months, but the crimes bring them together—or give them an excuse to seek each other out.

Love stories centered on adultery are difficult, and as a general rule, I’m inclined to avoid them. But attractions happen against our will sometimes, and Spencer-Fleming treats this attraction as a serious and sad development, even while celebrating how lovely their friendship is. That was especially true in the first book. In this book, I started to feel unease about the depiction of their relationship, like I was being manipulated into rooting for them because their connection is so much stronger and truer than that between Russ and his wife, Linda. We never actually meet Linda; we only hear about her, and what we hear is mostly negative. She’s not interested in Russ’s job. She wants to redecorate a comfortable room and Russ and Clare both love. She doesn’t get along with Russ’s delightfully progressive mother. Maybe Linda is a terrible person (although none of these facts equal being terrible), but I’d like a chance to meet her and decide for myself. The fact that I haven’t (and Clare hasn’t!) makes me nervous for the trajectory of all these relationships. There are interesting and complex ways to explore extra-marital attraction in fiction, but placing the spouse in the background and focusing only on her petty wrongs  is not one of them.

I also found that Clare herself grated on my nerves in this book. What seemed in the first book like an appealing adventurousness and a can-do attitude looks here like recklessness with a touch of arrogance. Flaws are good in fictional characters, but when the character’s flaws become the cause of most of her problems, I start to lose sympathy, and I think we’re supposed to sympathize with Clare here. It’s one thing, too, for her recklessness to be what gets her involved in the mysteries, but it’s another thing when she flouts rules in her work without seeming to give much thought to the consequences for her parish. Even when I agreed with her choices, her methods gave me pause. And her disregard for rules adds to my uneasiness about her relationship with Russ.

My other issues with the book largely came down to a feeling that it was becoming preachy about Clare’s progressive values. It was as if Spencer-Fleming was trying too hard to show that Christians don’t have to be uptight and conservative. I’m glad to see that message getting out there, but it’s a message I don’t need to hear. I’d like to see more complexity in Clare’s thinking about social issues. The mystery itself was fine—perhaps unnecessarily intricate toward the end, containing one twist too many for my tastes.

I haven’t decided if I’ll read further in the series. I am interested in where the relationship between Russ and Clare is headed, but I’d like to know that we’re given ample room to root against them getting together. And I’d like to know that Linda is given room to be a complete person in the story. Supporting characters are not Spencer-Fleming’s strongest suit, as Jenny noted in her review of In the Bleak Midwinter, but I hope that she puts in some extra effort with Linda. It’s only fair and would make for a better story.

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13 Responses to A Fountain Filled with Blood

  1. Lisa says:

    I read the first few books in this series one after another, in a bit of binge reading. I had the same issues that you do, starting with the first book where Clare set off alone in an unrealiable car and inadequate clothes to drive into the mountains in winter. But I sort of set them aside and just kept reading, I think mostly to see where Russ & Clare’s story went. I’ll just say that I don’t like where it went, and once I admitted that, then the other issues became more problematic for me, and I stopped reading.

    • Teresa says:

      The incident you mention from the first book did seem reckless but sort of made sense in the moment. Getting drunk and snooping through someone’s bedroom for no good reason made less sense, although I guess the drunkenness explains the snooping.

      [Spoilers]
      I looked up the next books, to see where the relationship goes, and ick, I’m not impressed. Killing off inconvenient characters is a decision I pretty much never approve of. A story has to be otherwise superb to let me get past that. And the most recent book sounds like a train wreck (almost enough of one to make me want to read it).

      • Lisa says:

        [continuing spoilers]
        and killing them off twice is — well, overkill, and unfair to the readers (not to mention the victim). I admit to a little curiosity about the newest book, but not enough to actually read it.

  2. I had the same feelings regarding their relationship and stopped after this one. Not sure if I’ll get to the third or not. I did not read your spoiler, but am curious.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m leaning toward not. It’s possible that the author manages to bring some subtlety back to the characters’ situation, but the spoilers I’ve read reveal not one, but two of the things that I hoped not to see.

  3. Christy says:

    Hm, I’ve had In a Bleak Midwinter on my to-read list for a while, but I think what you’ve said about the series makes me want to take it off. It sounds like Spencer-Fleming is trying to have the thrill of the ‘taboo’ relationship without fully taking on the complexity of the situation. I think it’s possible I would still enjoy the first book, but there are just too many books out there, too many other series to try.

    • Teresa says:

      Yeah, with so many good books out there, I’m reluctant to spend more time with this series, even though I know it’s possible for the author to salvage the situation or handle what sounds like terrible plot developments in interesting ways.

  4. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I didn’t like the quasi-adultery, and I wasn’t so keen on religion either, and going off into the snow (esp. with her military training) was three-strikes for me. Glad to know that someone has done the hard yards on any wavering I might have had though, as I am always tempted to give a series another go, Just In Case… ;-)

    • Teresa says:

      None of that bothered me in the first book, and I actively enjoyed the religious aspects. I liked the way the attraction was handled in the first book, but I was slightly worried about how it would be handled over multiple novels, and the trend is this book was not a good one.

  5. Alex says:

    I got through the first three, but number four has been sitting on my shelf half read for over a year now and I’ve not felt the need to go back and finish it. Indeed, I started reading this post hoping that you would be enthusiastic and kick start me. I won’t hold it against you that you’ve done exactly the opposite.

    • Teresa says:

      With a series, if I’m not eager to get right into the next one, I often never get to it at all. Same thing if I put down a book halfway through. It’s usually a sign I’m not really that into it and should just give up.

      And I often consider it a favor to have a book taken off my list :)

  6. Jenny says:

    I mostly enjoyed the first one, but felt no compelling need to go and read the rest of them, and it looks like my instinct to delay until you did the hard work for me was the right one! :)

    • Teresa says:

      I liked the first one more than you did, I think, and I was really interested to see how the author handled the characters’ relationship because there was potential for some really interesting storytelling there. It seems she’s going the soap opera route instead, which was what I was afraid of.

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