This 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 Midwinter, is 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.