I’m not usually one who goes in for seasonal reading, but the title of this book just kept calling to me as we had one of our first properly cold weekends of the winter this past weekend. And it was just perfect, though it made me thankful to be warm inside!
In the Bleak Midwinter is the first in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mystery series set in the small Adirondack town of Millers Kill and focusing on Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. The series now boasts seven volumes, and Minotaur is releasing new paperback editions of all the books. I’ve been wanting to read them for ages (thanks largely to the great reviews from Rebecca and Eva), so I was thrilled to get a copy through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The book begins shortly after Clare arrives in Millers Kill. As she is leaving the vestry’s welcome reception to go for a run, she comes across a box that she thinks is filled with donated clothes, but she finds a newborn infant inside and a note asking that the baby be given to a couple in the parish that had been praying for a child for the last few years. That can’t happen, however, until the police and Department of Human Services ensure that both the baby’s parents are in full support of this plan and that the baby was not dropped off against their wishes. When, a few days later, a young woman who had recently given birth, turns up dead, the case takes on an entirely different dimension.
I read a lot of crime fiction, but with the exception of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, I can’t think of a new series that drew me in so thoroughly and so quickly. I read this book in two large gulps, hardly coming up for air at all and stopping only because I had to sleep. The characters, the setting, the crime, every piece of it worked. If this is what Spencer-Fleming can do right out of the gate, I cannot wait to read more. (Please don’t tell me they go downhill. I can’t bear the thought.)
The mystery itself is clearly laid out. I tend to not worry much about whether I can solve the mystery, but all the information I needed was there, without being too obvious. This is not one of those crime novels that twists the formula and lays traps that make it impossible to play along with the detectives, if playing along is your thing. As Eva notes in her review, it’s a nice blend of the old-fashioned classic form and a contemporary setting.
And the setting! I’ve never been to the Adirondacks, but I still felt I could see the place—and especially feel the cold. The cold also serves an important dramatic purpose because the characters are always at the mercy of the elements. Clare, who is from Virginia and completely unprepared for an upstate New York winter, finds herself vulnerable in ways that are completely unnatural to her.
Clare herself is poised to take a place in my growing list of particularly inspiring and strong women characters. She’s wonderful! A former army helicopter pilot who never expected to get the call to ministry, Clare is strong, smart, and resourceful, but not unrealistically so. I was somewhat fearful that her work as a priest would be treated as merely a job, a convenient device to put her in touch with much of the town, but it’s clear that it’s more than that to her. When she sees the body of the young mother, her instinct is to make a sign of the cross on her forehead and pray over her. Her concern when talking with people who might be connected with the crime is not to ensure that the killer is punished but to help people find grace and to receive support.
At times, this urge puts her at odds with Russ, and their interests in the case both dovetail and conflict, as do their approaches to finding out what really happened. Overall, however, their unlikely friendship is one of mutual understanding and support. Russ, an atheist, doesn’t understand the importance of celebrating the Eucharist for Clare, but he respects her, as she does him. Both have positions in the town that, in their minds, require them to appear invulnerable, and they gradually learn to lean on each other.
I am a little uncertain about the future course of the relationship, as by the end of the book, the single Clare and the unhappily married Russ shows signs of feeling a spark of something more than friendship. In general, I’m not a “shipper” whenever a man and a woman are placed in close partnership. In this case, I can see how the attraction grew, but I fear for where it could lead for them both. There are many ways this could go that I would find dramatically satisfying, but all of them involve some pain—or should, if the books are to be emotionally honest.
But the reservations I feel belong to future books in the series. About this book, I have only praise. I’m ready to look for more right away! (All the titles come from hymns! This pleases me to no end.)