REVIEW: In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Dear Ms. Spencer-Fleming,
My friend Keishon has been telling me for years to read this book. She’s a huge fan of your series featuring Episcopalian priest Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. Now that I’ve read In the Bleak Midwinter, the first book in the series, I can see why.
The mystery at the heart of In the Bleak Midwinter begins with a baby left on the steps of St. Alban’s Church on a cold December night. The baby is found by Reverend Clare Fergusson, St. Alban’s new priest, who has recently relocated from the South to Miller’s Kill, a town in upstate New York near the Adiorndack mountains and the Vermont border.
The box that contained the baby and his blankets also had a note asking that the baby be named Cody and given to a pair of childless lawyers, Geoff and Karen Burns, parishioners at St. Alban’s who have been desperate to adopt a child. But the baby is placed with a foster family instead, while the police attempt to locate the birth parents and ensure their wishes are followed.
Russ Van Alstyne, the police chief of Miller’s Kill, is an atheist and therefore not especially keen to talk to a priest. But in the course of questioning Clare about how she found the baby, he finds she’s not what he expected, and later, while giving her a ride back to the church, he discovers they share common ground — Clare, like him, is ex-army.
When Clare asks Russ if she can accompany him on patrol the following Friday in order to learn more about Miller’s Kill and see what kind of ministry outreach could alleviate the town’s problems, Russ sees no reason to refuse. Friday’ patrol starts out normal enough. But when Russ stops at a trail near the river, where people sometimes come to drink, Clare stumbles on the body of a young woman.
Russ theorizes that the woman must be the mother of the abandoned baby, and an autopsy soon bears him out. Since St. Alban’s church and the note specifying that the baby be adopted by two of its parishioners are the only clues to the dead woman’s identity, Russ has to turn to Clare for help in solving the crime.
Working together to learn more about the dead woman and investigate brings Russ and Clare closer. The process by which warmth develops between them is so gradual and subtle that for a long time neither of them sees the danger it presents to Clare’s relationship with her parishioners or to Russ’s marriage to his wife Linda, who is away on a business trip. Nor do they see how their feelings will crystallize when the killer threatens one of them.
In the Bleak Midwinter is both thoughtful and entertaining. Clare and Russ are sympathetic people who feel real at almost all times. I liked the way they could each see past the roles of priest and police chief to the person holding that role, who sometimes had to struggle with the weight of that responsibility. Both are dedicated to their jobs, and can also be a bit impulsive. The latter is especially true of Clare, who, as Russ puts it, sometimes jumps in “feet first without thinking.” But since this stems from her need to help other people, most of the time it didn’t bother me.
You capture winter in upstate New York beautifully; I could almost feel the December snow melting on my skin. The descriptions are matter-of-fact most of the time, yet they achieve several moments of spare poetry, like this one, in which the body of the young mother is discovered, and Russ asks Clare to go to the car and radio the dispatcher:
Clare couldn’t stop herself from looking at that hand once more, so pale and still it might have been carved out of snow. Snow on snow, the old hymn went. Snow on snow. She could make out some kind of sleeve, disappearing into the tangled brush. Whoever it was must be half in the water. Did she jump? Had she changed her mind and tried to crawl out? Clare blinked the blurriness out of her eyes and filled her lungs with sharp, dry air. She headed up the trail, jogging as quickly as she could in the snow. The trees crowded in against the path. She slipped and slid, trying to keep her footing and not break her pace. There was an explosion of snow from her left. She yelped and almost dropped her flashlight. A doe leaped into the beam of light and vanished in another shower of snow. Clare staggered, her heart about to hammer its way out of her chest.
Except for two scenes toward the end — one in which Russ explains a suspect’s motives and possible actions, and another in which Clare offers a suspect spiritual counsel but then questions that suspect in a way that seemed to have more to do with gathering information, the dialogue flows well and sounds very real. I loved this scene, in which Russ informs the dead woman’s sister of the death:
“Kristen McWhorter?” Russ asked. The branch manager silently shut the door behind herself on the way out.
“Yes… ” Kristen said, frowning. She was pretty, in a milkmaid sort of way that even her ink-dark punk hairstyle and thick black eyeliner couldn’t conceal. “Did my father do something?” she asked.
“Your father? No. I have some very bad news for you, Kristen. This past Friday we discovered your sister Katie’s body near the kill, about a quarter-mile upstream from Payson’s Park. She had been murdered.”
Kristen stood perfectly still, blinking. “No,” she said. “You’re mistaken. Katie’s in Albany. She’s a freshman at SUNY- Albany, and she hasn’t been home since school started. She’s in Albany.”
“She was identified in a photograph by someone who knew her in high school. We’d like you or your parents to view the body to make a positive identification.”
“I’ll go. I’ll go right now. It’s not Katie. She’s in Albany. I’ll get my coat right now. You have the wrong person. Oh, no, I’m starting my shift right now. I have to talk with Rosaline about getting off.”
Russ gestured through the glass walls at the manager. “I’ve already spoken with your boss, Kristen. Everything’s set.”
In addition to the strong writing and characterization, I was glad that I did not figure out the identity of the killer much in advance of when it was revealed. In addition, I really appreciated that unlike some mysteries, where the dead pile up as little more than an excuse for the sleuth to find out to who killed them, there was a sense in In the Bleak Midwinter that the victim’s life and her death mattered to those she left behind and to Russ and Clare.
I was also glad of Russ and Clare’s maturity. I think the book takes place in the mid-1990s, and Clare is 35 years old while Russ is 43 or so. Since this is the first in a series, I’m interested in what the future holds for them.
In the Bleak Midwinter is not without some minor flaws. I think that almost anyone in Clare’s position would be more conscious of town gossip than she is. Toward the end I did get a bit frustrated with one of Clare’s impulsive actions, and I thought the villain’s actions during the book’s final scenes were somewhat over the top. But on the whole, I enjoyed this well-written mystery, and I recommend it to our readers. B+.