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Book Review: In the Bleak Midwinter

March 10, 2010

In the Bleak Midwinter (A Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mystery)
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Paperback $6.99

I picked this up at Partners and Crime because I liked the idea of a female priest at the center of a mystery. I watched the Father Dowling mystery series as a kid, I have a soft spot for the confluence of clergy and detective work.

Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson finds an abandoned baby on the church steps. A wealthy childless couple in her parish thinks this is the answer to their prayers. But until the baby’s parents can be found and contacted, everyone’s in limbo. Clare is eager to team up with police chief Russ Van Alstyne to get answers and get the baby placed in a good home. Having a priest be part of a police investigation makes some things easier- talking to victims’ families, for example.

Clare is thoughtful, rather than prim in her faith. Hints of her past in the military guide her and Russ towards an easygoing friendship, and give her a gritty, worldly edge. (And also some breathtaking action scenes as the suspense cranks towards a climax.) She wasn’t always a priest. Things like her fast car and her forthright manner surprise many in her quiet upstate NY parish. I like the narrator’s glimpses into Clare’s point of view, and that she wrestles with her patience and her faith.
At first, I felt jaded about Clare’s military past. It works like shorthand, to prove that she’s got guts and tenacity, and can handle tough situations.

Having her go from the military to the priesthood initially felt like the author was making a character sundae- scooping disparate elements into one character. It does set Clare up as capable of taking care of herself and her pastoral flock, even in perilous situations. I can’t speak for what would draw a person to either the military or the priesthood. Love of structure? Desire to help people? The deep, certain calling that Clare herself speaks to (though again, refreshingly not in a preachy way.) I didn’t feel like having the military in common was needed to get Clare and Russ to be friends. They have enough in common already- blunt honesty, dedication to the all-consuming service of their jobs.

I can’t be too willing to quibble about Clare as ex-military, because, as I mentioned, I was raised on Father Dowling. If his sidekick, Sister Stevie, can go from juvie to the veil, then Reverend Clare can have her fast car and military memorabilia. Can’t believe I remember Father Dowling that well. But, I digress.

The mystery itself is well-crafted, satisfyingly suspenseful, with a good supporting cast. The would-be adoptive parents for the lost baby are two highly successful lawyers, so there’s a bit of a class contrast between them and the baby’s biological family, a contrast that’s handled deftly for the most part. There’s a bit of a body count, but it’s described gracefully, without either sordid violence or mawkishness.

I like the chemistry Clare and Russ are building, working together as cop and priest. I admit I’ve always been a sucker for unlikely partners solving mysteries. From the X-Files, through Bones, through my guiltiest of pleasures, Castle. I like the partnerships that have chemistry that doesn’t automatically fuel romance. That seems to be more prevalent in TV mysteries than in books, so finding it here is a treat. While I’d love to see Russ and Clare continue solving mysteries in future novels; I really, really don’t want to see them develop into a romance. He’s married! And although, as an Episcopal priest, she doesn’t have to be celibate… I would like to see a pair of characters have a good, respectful and honest friendship, without tumbling into romance.

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