Tuesday, 29 March 2011

In the Bleak Midwinter ~ Julia Spencer-Fleming

I have never quite been able to decide whether the way in which one is constantly being introduced to new writers is one of the blessings of belonging to the blogging world, or one of its major curses. Practically every day, it seems, I go hurrying over to the library site to see if I can locate either a specific book or anything by a previously unknown author that I would never have thought about requesting had it not been for something one of you had recommended. (As you can see, I'm putting the blame fairly and squarely where it really lies.) Ultimately, this way lies madness. I walked out of the library this morning struggling under the weight of no fewer than seven volumes. It's a mile and a half walk home!

Nevertheless, sometimes there is no doubt that such recommendations are a blessing. So whoever it was pointed me in the direction of Julia Spencer-Fleming, thank you. You always know you are onto a good thing when you reach the end of a book and automatically look for the next in the series because you don't want to leave the main characters behind. This was definitely the case with In the Bleak Midwinter, the first of Spencer-Fleming's novels about Clare Fergusson, the newly ordained Episcopalian priest of a small upstate NewYork community and Russ Van Alystyne, the local chief of Police.

Being the first woman priest in this small town is going to be difficult enough for Clare, especially as it is clear that she is as different as can be from her predecessor; she doesn't need anything that is going to make life even more complicated than it already is. Cue disaster in the shape of a newborn baby abandoned on the steps of the church and the discovery, hard on the heels of this event, of the body of a young woman. These two incidents bring Clare and Russ into close contact and they find it easy to collaborate having both come from military backgrounds which have shaped their minds to work in pretty much the same sort of organised way.

Who is the baby? Who is the girl? Is she the baby's mother and if so who might want her dead? Why was whoever left the child on the church steps so insistent that he be adopted by a particular family from the congregation? Spencer-Fleming develops a convincing plot line that kept me guessing almost to the end.

 However, good though her plotting is, I think her really strong points are her ability to create realistic settings and to draw extremely believable characters.  Clare has come from much warmer climes and the New England winter is a real shock. It was to me as well. I really felt the cold and most particularly the difficultly of day to day life in a countryside that is almost impossible to penetrate once the snow comes down. I thought we'd had a difficult winter this year, but it was as nothing to what the people of Millers Kill have to face. If we have another bad spell next winter remind me not to complain before I've re-read this, will you.

Clare herself I found really attractive. As someone who was brought up in the Church, but no longer belongs, she struck me as the sort of priest the ministry could do with encouraging. She leads her congregation in the ways she feels are moral without actually judging them. When I am screaming at a character, "And you call yourself a Christian?" Clare is trying to find a way of helping that person see for themselves that what they are proposing is not acceptable. The best thing I can say about Clare is that I would like her for a very good friend.

Something that I will be interested to see is how Spencer-Fleming develops the community in which her novels are set. I'm seeing her here in relation to Louise Penny, who has created in Three Pines a group of individuals every bit as important and as central to her work as Inspector Gamache and his police team. So far I haven't felt that there is anyone among the inhabitants of Millers Kill who is going to become a recurring and important character but that may change further into the series.

All in all then, this is a mark in favour of being introduced to new writers and a book worth adding to the pile as I struggle home from the library.  Thank you.



  1. Julia Spencer-Fleming was hugely popular when I worked in a bookstore in upstate New York, thanks to our location's proximity to the settings of her books. Even though I'm not really a mystery reader, people assured me again and again that I'd enjoy her books, citing, as you do, Spencer-Fleming's ability to create wonderful settings and characters. I do intend to read this series someday!

  2. I have this very problem that you write about! This is always why I am so tempted to start new books--too many choices and they all sound good. I have this author on my Amazon wishlist but may have to buy this next time I place an order. I do love an author who can create a vivid setting! I also like the idea of a female priest!

  3. I find the introduction of new writers a blessing and a curse too! Also, I'm hoping to be able to bicycle to my library now that I've found a branch about 3 miles away, but I'll have to get way fewer books at one time!

    I'm still on a mystery kick, and this sounds like one I definitely should put on my TBR list. So thanks. :p

  4. Erin, I'm already feeling cold for you. Are you still living there and are the winters really that bad?

    Danielle, I am so glad I'm not alone in this. What is really worrying is when a book takes some time to come and then I can't remember why I asked for it in the first place. I have learnt not to argue with the librarians because inevitably I did order it, I just can't remember why.

    Eva, you need a basket on your bicycle. That way you can bring half the library back with you:)

  5. Hello Annie,

    This is so unfair of you ... Just because you have so many great new recommendations coming your way, you don't realise the impact your posts have, when you pass these gems on to the rest of us !!!

    My already huge TBR mountain just keeps expanding, until one day it is sure to burst and take over the house, consigning hubbie and myself to the garden shed !!

    Another author, who as yet is unknown to me, but only until I can get my hands on a copy of her books ...


  6. A new writer to me and a book that certainly sounds like a good read. I think I may just have to add it onto my ever-growing wish-list! :)

  7. This sounds really great! I live not too far from upstate New York, so it would be fascinating to read about the location, and I love the idea of a female priest as main character. I see it takes place in a town called Millers Kill. Oh, yes, that's SO upstate New York! I used to live in a city called Peekskill, not too far from Fishkill.

  8. Sorry, Yvonne, I suppose it really is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, isn't it? One of the reasons I've taken to the e-reader is that I can gather books up there without them taking up any space at all. Which is essential as there is no more space!

    Nikki-ann, I'm sure you won't regret it. I've just picked up notification from the library that they have the second one for me, so I can have that as a treat over the weekend.

    Dorothy, according to the book, Kill in this context means a river, is that correct? It is, of course, so totally appropriate for the subject matter that it sounds a bit convenient. And if you really get winters like that then next year I'm sending food parcels over!

  9. I do actually have a basket, and it's quite large, but it's not the most securely attached, so I'm afraid to put too much weight in it! ;)

  10. Yes, kill means river or perhaps stream, I'm not sure which. This winter was awful, but that was an anomaly -- thank you for the thought, though! :)