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REVIEW: In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Dear Ms. Spencer-Fleming,

book review 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+.

Sincerely,

Janine

This book can be purchased in mass market from Amazon or Powells. No ebook format.

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

22 Comments

  1. Tracey
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 12:57:09

    Thanks for a great review of the first book of one of my favorite series. Just a quick correction, the book is available in Kindle format – in fact, the entire 6-book series is available. A few books in the series are also available on fictionwise.com.

    ReplyReply

  2. Janine
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 13:00:02

    Thanks for the correction, Tracey. I’m glad you enjoyed the review.

    ReplyReply

  3. Sheryl Nantus
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 13:13:28

    I *heart* this series beyond belief. Well-written, a mature relationship and realistic to the point that I want to MOVE there.

    great review and glad for it!!!

    ReplyReply

  4. AAR Rachel
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 13:19:57

    I’m so glad you tried this series and liked it (at least the first book), Janine!

    I’m on book 4 right now, and just put up my review for book 3, Out of the Deep I Cry.

    ReplyReply

  5. Janine
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 13:32:28

    Thanks, Sheryl and Rachel. Rachel, I just went to your blog and read your review. It’s gotten me really looking forward to the third book.

    ReplyReply

  6. ArkansasCynthia
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 15:26:37

    Just read the last book in the series and sigh, it’s great.

    ReplyReply

  7. jmc
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 16:28:38

    Keishon got me started on this series, as well. I wonder if she has a potential alternative career as a book pimp?

    Anyway, I really liked this initial book, although I read the series out of order and managed to guess whodunit because of a change in the cast of characters. Still, the series is a welcome addition to those I follow.

    ReplyReply

  8. MCHalliday
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 16:48:41

    Ah, oooh, a murder mystery, not easily solved by the reader, with romantic elements! Fantastic!!

    Although, I admit the reference to ‘priest’ threw me off, as ministers of faith in the Anglican Church are referred to as ‘vicar’. Perhaps, it is different in the US.

    ReplyReply

  9. Janine
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 18:34:39

    ArkansasCynthia & jmc — Glad you’re both enjoying the series. And yeah, Keishon is a great book pimper.

    MCHalliday — I read an interview with Spencer-Fleming in which she mentioned that she was a member of the Episcopal church, and the unusual title of “priest” is discussed by Russ and Clare in the book, so I think the author likely got this detail right.

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  10. Marta Acosta
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 18:49:10

    So glad you reviewed this book in my favorite mystery series! I think Julia Spencer-Fleming’s a terrifically talented writer and her stories and characters just stay with me. The mysteries themselves are beautifully plotted, and Clare and Russ and their troubled friendship (or more) seem very real to me. Spencer-Fleming makes me really care for these characters and want them to figure out solutions to their problems. Not easily done since both characters have strong moral and ethical centers.

    ReplyReply

  11. Janine
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 19:05:20

    Glad you enjoyed the review, Marta. I agree that the characters are easy to care about and face difficult dilemmas. They seem very real to me as well.

    ReplyReply

  12. Keishon
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 21:23:23

    I am *always* excited when friends enjoy the same books that I do. Great review Janine and I look forward to reading your thoughts on the rest of the series whenever you find the time to read and review them for DA.

    ReplyReply

  13. Jessica
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 21:31:56

    This is the best book I’ve read in 2008 (and I read about 4 or 5 books a week). I am not a fan of upstate NY (a bad graduate school experience) nor the clergy nor police, but I love these books. The relationship between the characters has me hooked like no other books. The best point in this book comes when one character makes just one reference to Jimmy Carter (an affair in your heart) and you just know everything they are feeling. Thanks for reviewing this on your site. Hopefully more people will pick it up.

    ReplyReply

  14. Janine
    Sep 02, 2008 @ 23:07:46

    Thanks Keishon, and thanks so much for recommending the book!

    Jessica — You’re welcome. I hope more people pick these up too.

    ReplyReply

  15. Emily
    Sep 03, 2008 @ 08:23:32

    I am an Episcopal priest, so yes, “priest” is the term ;). One of the things I really enjoy about this book, aside from the very strong writing and all the other things you have mentioned, is that it is one of the few books about Episcopal clergy that doesn’t make me wince every other page. (I’m looking at you, Mitford series).

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  16. mia madwyn
    Sep 03, 2008 @ 21:15:00

    I read this book years ago when it was first published. I liked it (with the same reservations you had, actually, which oddly enough I remembered as soon as you mentioned them at the end of your review). Yet somehow I forgot about it and didn’t pick up the other books.

    I’ll have to remedy that now.

    I’m so glad you don’t just stick to recent titles.

    ReplyReply

  17. Janine
    Sep 03, 2008 @ 23:32:41

    Glad you enjoyed the book, Mia.

    I'm so glad you don't just stick to recent titles.

    Thanks for this feedback. Truthfully, newer books often get my attention first, but I try to make time for older ones occasionally as well.

    ReplyReply

  18. Kaetrin
    Sep 04, 2008 @ 02:59:20

    Janine,
    Is this book a suspense with romantic elements or is it a romantic suspense? How much romance is in there or is it really about the mystery? I know the heroine is a priest so it would seem there’s not a lot of physical intimacy – is that right? (just trying to get a handle on what sort of book it is so I can decide if it’s my cup of tea or not…)
    thank you!

    ReplyReply

  19. Janine
    Sep 04, 2008 @ 11:54:25

    Katerin,

    I would say that it’s a mystery with very strong romantic elements. The reason I say that is that the mystery is resolved in the first book but I have the sense that the romantic relationship is just beginning here and will continue to be explored as the series progresses. Clare, though a priest, can marry but at the start of the series Russ is married to someone else, so there’s no sex in this first book. The characters fall in love very gradually, without realizing it until close to the end of the book, but their developing relationship is very central to the story.

    Others who have read the series can jump in here and say if they agree or disagree with me on the genre question.

    ReplyReply

  20. Jessica
    Sep 04, 2008 @ 20:36:13

    Janine,is exactly right about the description. I read a number of H. Blaze and spicier books and this is not that, and though each mystery is solved, there is no HEA. Eventually there’s a kiss or two. But this is much more about glances, and inferences, and the exploration of feelings in a society where their respective roles shouldn’t cross paths. It’s what I wish historical romances were. If you enjoy complex mysteries wrapped in scenery and good backstory, then these are the books for you, Kaetrin.

    ReplyReply

  21. mia madwyn
    Sep 05, 2008 @ 10:22:53

    I’m rather glad to know that about the romantic subplot. That’s one thing that made me a little uneasy, the possibility that they might end up with a full-blown love affair between the priest and the married sheriff. While some books might sustain such a situation, this book wasn’t a pot boiler and I had difficulty “going there.” So I guess it’s safe for me to keep reading.

    Good discussion.

    ReplyReply

  22. Book review: In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming | Petrona
    May 03, 2012 @ 02:00:52

    [...] other reviews of In the Bleak Midwinter at: Murder by Type, Kittling: Books, Dear Author (the reviewer also inspired by Keishon to read this book), S. Krishna’s books and [...]

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