Tuesday, 29 March 2011
In the Bleak Midwinter ~ Julia Spencer-Fleming
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.