We are starting a new series called “If You Like” which will be hosted by various readers, authors and bloggers of Dear Author. The purpose of the post and the comments is to explore what we like about a particular iconic author and what other authors have books like the iconic author. Val Kovalin who writes about fantasy fiction at ValKovalin.com and m/m fiction at Obsidian Bookshelf is hosting this If You Like entry on Julia Spencer Fleming.
Julia Spencer-Fleming’s latest release, I Shall Not Want, is the 6th book in her Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne mystery series.
If you would like to host an “If You Like” post, please email me at Jane at dearauthor.com
If you like Julia Spencer-Fleming -
Julia Spencer-Fleming writes the Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne mystery series, which has strong crossover appeal to fans of romance and romantic suspense. To see why, please read on and rest assured that I don’t include any plot-spoilers.
I first ran across this series when I checked a list of mystery award-winners for reading suggestions. In the Bleak Midwinter won both an Agatha Award and a Dilys Award. The Agatha is for best cozy-mystery, a category that involves an amateur sleuth. The Dilys is given by independent bookstores to their favorite mystery. When I found out the heroine is an Episcopal priest, I had to read the books. I love characters who hold unusual jobs.
Now I’ve read all six books, and await the seventh. Here are my three favorites:
1. All Mortal Flesh (Book 5). Police procedural details, suspense, workplace politics, and huge changes in the characters’ lives. It doesn’t get much better than this.
2. In the Bleak Midwinter (Book 1). A very close second. This complex mystery keeps you guessing. Plus it’s a treat seeing the hero and heroine meet and experience the first glimmerings of their mutual attraction.
3. To Darkness and to Death (Book 4). Some readers lament that the increase in minor-characters’ viewpoints results in less interaction between hero and heroine. I find the story fast-moving and the multiple plotlines intriguing.
Setting (era): Contemporary
This is the modern world filled with rapid change, loneliness, and random violence.
Setting (geographic): Small New England town
Millers Kill is a fictional location in New York state. The name derives from the Dutch settlers: “kill” means river. It’s a place of harsh lingering winters, rural Yankee accents, and conservative morals. Saint Alban’s is one of the four churches in town, and the chief of police supervises eight cops plus a dispatcher.
Heroine type: Impulsive and Idealistic
Clare Fergusson is the thirtyish heroine, an Episcopal priest newly assigned to Millers Kill. Just so you know: in ritual and appearance, an Episcopal service preserves much of the beauty of a Catholic mass. The Episcopal Church itself is so liberal that it accepts female priests and gay priests and no longer requires the vow of celibacy.
However, Clare’s specific diocese is conservative. In A Fountain Filled with Blood she gets in trouble for performing a commitment ceremony for two gay men. Her ecclesiastical superiors want her to settle down as soon as possible with a respectable husband and children. As a new priest, she still questions her vocation. Previously, she flew helicopters as an army captain during Desert Storm.
She’s impulsive, idealistic, compassionate, and action-oriented. An adrenaline junkie, she loves dangerous situations and fast sports cars. Her keen intelligence comes from her advanced education, her profession which emphasizes rational and metaphoric thought, and her tendency towards flashes of insight. She’s not movie-star beautiful but striking like a vibrant character-actress. Here is the hero’s first impression of her from page 3 of In the Bleak Midwinter:
“She was plain, no makeup and nondescript dark blond hair scarped back in a ponytail. She had that overbred look he associated with rich women from the north side of town: high cheekbones and a long thin nose that was perfect for looking down at folks – Her eyes were the only exceptional thing about her, true hazel, like granite seen under green water.”
Hero type: Rugged and Reserved
Russ Van Alstyne is the fiftyish hero and the town’s chief of police. Like Clare, he is an army combat veteran; he served with the military police. Sometimes he and Clare become conscious of their age-difference: for example, she realizes that she was a little kid back when he was an eighteen year-old soldier in Vietnam.
He is rugged, reserved, taciturn, shrewd, cynical, blunt, and a little pessimistic. A recovering alcoholic, he has settled down to a quiet life in his old home town. He enjoys wood-working and home repair and loves his gorgeous wife Linda.
With Linda, he experiences that rough patch in a marriage when two people start growing apart but can still rekindle their love. He’s a cop who handles the grim realities of his profession by keeping everything to himself. Linda is an entrepreneur struggling with the time-consuming responsibilities of her custom-curtain business. Needing a sympathetic ear, Russ begins confiding in Clare. She reciprocates because he’s her first friend in town. Emotional intimacy ensues.
We glimpse Russ through action or others’ brief impressions. He fiddles with his glasses. Clare first notices his height (well over six feet tall) and big hands. The vivacious church-secretary Lois remarks on page 84 of In the Bleak Midwinter:
“He’s really quite attractive, don’t you think? – All that tousled hair and those sexy lines at the corners of his eyes.”
Later, Clare adds on page 161 of In the Bleak Midwinter:
“He had a fit, outdoors look to him, still slightly tan from last summer, his dark brown hair picked out with gold and copper. She’d have to disagree with Lois, his nose was too big and his lips were too nonexistent to call him handsome. But he looked like a man who had lived comfortably within his skin for the past forty-odd years – His eyes were Fourth-of-July blue, high and bright with the snap of a flag in the wind. But behind them she could see something moving, like pages turning in a book no one was allowed to read.”
Plot: (action-oriented / character-driven): Both
The books are action-oriented mysteries. A crime happens, which tests the hero and heroine through its aftermath and solving. Russ, of course, is the chief of police. But Clare gets believably involved: as a priest, she must comfort and guide the victims. The action-oriented plots are as follows:
Book 1 – In the Bleak Midwinter: Someone abandons a baby on the doorstep of Clare’s church. This opens a police investigation and then leads to a murder.
Book 2 – A Fountain Filled with Blood: Hate-crimes lead to the murder of a gay man. A controversial building project threatens to divide the town.
Book 3 – Out of the Deep I Cry: A hated doctor disappears under sinister circumstances that may connect to a decades-old secret tragedy.
Book 4 – To Darkness and to Death: In a single day, the town mobilizes all resources to find the missing sister of a reclusive rich man.
Book 5 – All Mortal Flesh: When someone close to Russ gets murdered, he is the prime suspect. Meanwhile, he and Clare each get micro-managed by suspicious superiors.
Book 6 – I Shall Not Want: A serial killer may be preying on undocumented migrant workers.
The series arc is character-driven. What ties the books together is the evolving relationship between hero and heroine. Clare and Russ find that they are soul mates. But they can’t just get rid of his wife or have an affair. Each would rather rip out his own heart than selfishly pursue what he wants at the cost of wrecking other people’s lives. Russ still loves his wife, but he’s coming to love Clare even more. Clare’s ecclesiastical superiors may force her to choose between the priesthood and Russ.
Plot (slow/fast): Fast.
Especially To Darkness and to Death, which happens during a single day.
Writing style (simple v. ornate): Simple
The simple writing style compliments the close third-person viewpoint. Clare is straightforward as is Russ; the minor characters are all unpretentious Yankees not given to excessive metaphor.
By contrast, the plotting is daring and ornate. The author doesn’t always serve up the same type of book. In the Bleak Midwinter is a classic mystery, offering a whodunit puzzle. Out of the Deep I Cry experiments with parallel plots separated in time. To Darkness and Death manages to streamline many plot-threads and viewpoints into action that spans a single day. All Mortal Flesh unfolds with the gritty realism of a police procedural.
Dialogue (lots v. little): Medium
We get enough for our leads to question the witnesses and gather the information they need to solve the crimes. Meanwhile Clare and Russ tell each other secrets, including the truth about his involvement in the Vietnam War. Minor characters such as insecure teenagers, feisty dispatchers, and cranky sextons establish their personalities with well-chosen expressions. We readers learn about the Episcopal Church and get some laughs as Clare struggles with the mismatched members of the vestry board to decide church policy. Much of the books’ humor comes from dialogue.
Humor (Yes/No-serious/some): Some
The emotional angst precludes too much comedy. But we get flashes of wry humor. Much of it centers on people’s different ways of seeing things. To Russ’s weary amusement, Clare expresses a wide-eyed fascination with police work and cop-show phrases such as “legwork.” The conservative members of Clare’s congregation gawk at the military memorabilia in her office, including a coffee mug printed with the logo “Death from the Sky!” The crusty sexton, unfamiliar with female priests, addresses Clare as “Father.”
Clare and Russ enjoy verbal sparring with worthy opponents like the unflappable dispatcher, Harlene. The snappy dialogue reaches inspired heights whenever Clare’s intermittent suitor Hugh Parteger arrives. A charming British investor, he LOATHES Russ. It’s entirely mutual – as their verbal dueling confirms.
Emotional Angst (high/medium/low): High
Tremendous emotional angst: Forbidden love! Guilt! His alcoholism. Her grief over her long-dead sister. His harrowing experiences in the Vietnam War. Her uncertainty about her vocation. And more that I must keep secret to avoid plot-spoilers.
Conflict (externally driven/internally driven/both): Both
The external conflict in each book is the crime to be solved. The internal conflict centers upon the forbidden love between hero and heroine.
Heat level: (kisses/warm/hot/scorching): Kisses to Warm
Books 1 through 5 sustain a high level of sexual tension but not much physical contact. Book 6 I Shall Not Want introduces another couple who have a brief, tasteful, yet lusty sex scene. Plus, it allows Russ and Clare two scenes of passionate kissing as on page 126 of I Shall Not Want:
“He dug his fingers into her hair and pulled her to him, kissing her, deep hungry kisses that tasted of chocolate and peppermint. She moaned in the back of her throat and wrestled her hands free from around his waist to twine them about his neck. He bumped against the kitchen table and bent her back, kissing her, kissing her, her mouth and her jaw and the pulse trip-hammering in her throat. He felt something huge and powerful racing through him, sparking every nerve end, blanking out everything in the world except Clare, the taste of her, the sound of her, panting and gasping , the feel of her, oh, God, better than anything he had ever fantasized, as he yanked open her pajama top and pushed it aside and touched her, touched her, touched her. She cried out, and he shut her mouth with more kisses, wet and dark -“
Other variables to consider:
Books are written in third-person viewpoint, past-tense. Violence is mild to medium. These are American books, but not excessively peppered with slang.
If you like Julia Spencer-Fleming, you’ll like -
Priests under pressure? Get The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch. An impoverished Englishwoman comes between a charismatic Anglican priest and his wife. The priest, who has powerful psychic abilities, struggles with the temptation to control people. Part of the Starbridge series, it balances romance and suspense.
Quirky character-interaction? Try Still Life by Louise Penny. When a beloved amateur artist gets murdered in a tiny Canadian town, Inspector Gimache from the SÃ»reté du Québec investigates. A compassionate man, he must manage the competing agendas of his volatile subordinates, and deal with the local eccentrics (that would be everybody). Two standout characters are husband-and-wife artists whose individual insecurity is matched only by their love for one another. Later in the Inspector Gimache series, they experience intense jealousy of one another and succumb to manipulative behavior. Penny does a brilliant job with the tensions between people who can’t stand each other and yet have to work together.
Tough heroine from a military background? Read the Evan Delaney series by Meg Gardiner about a writer who lives in Santa Barbara, California. A former lawyer, Evan comes from a family of Navy fighter pilots, and has a complicated relationship with her boyfriend, another lawyer. The author, a former lawyer herself, provides convincing professional details. In China Lake, Evan’s nephew and brother get targeted by a fanatical religious cult. This is an outstanding mystery, and it even includes a steamy sex scene!
Unrequited or forbidden love? Try the Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro mystery series by Dennis Lehane, but be warned: the violence is extreme. Patrick and Angela are terrific characters: tough, funny, sardonic, and smart. Childhood friends from working-class Boston, they become partners in a private investigation business. Our first-person narrator Patrick has always been hopelessly in love with Angela. In the first book, A Drink Before the War, she’s married to someone else. By the fourth book, the great Gone Baby Gone, Patrick and Angela get torn apart by their uncompromisingly opposing views on how to handle a case. I read the book in amazement, thinking, “My God, they’re both right!”
Readers, here is where I need help in the comments because I’m pathetically unfamiliar with romance titles. For someone who likes Julia Spencer-Fleming, what would you recommend?
Who would you recommend?