Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects discussed the fourth novel in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Rev. Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. Marge, our discussion leader, unearthed some intriguing facts about the life and art of Julia Spencer-Fleming. The author’s father, an Air Force pilot, lost his life in a plane crash when she was only six months old. Her mother subsequently remarried; this explained the book’s mysterious (not to mention poignant) double dedication: “To my father, Lt. Melvin Spencer, USAF,” and “to my father, John L. Fleming.”
In deciding on the attributes with which to endow her protagonist, Spencer-Fleming wished to create a character who whose profession provided her with a legitimate reason for delving into the lives and problems of others. At the same time, she wanted this person to be action-oriented rather than merely cerebral.. Thus we have Clare Fergusson, Episcopal priest and ex-Army helicopter pilot!
Such a character could have come across as cartoonish in less capable hands, but in Clare Fergusson, the artful Spencer-Fleming has given us a fully rounded, deeply conflicted, all too human protagonist.
Marge was admittedly faced with a difficult decision as to which entry in this series to select for discussion. The Usual Suspects had already discussed In the Bleak Midwinter, the stellar first novel that garnered all kinds of awards and accolades and instantly placed Spencer-Fleming on the crime fiction map. (All the titles are drawn from hymns – including the rather disconcertingly named second entry, A Fountain Filled with Blood!) At any rate, Marge wanted to take us part way into the series – but not too far. There have been some momentous developments of late in the ongoing saga of Clare and Russ, and our discussion leader didn’t want to give anything away prematurely. (This happened to me at Bouchercon when someone blurted out the ending of the most recent book in the series, I Shall Not Want. At the time, I was only about half way through the novel. Marge and I had successfully cornered Spencer-Fleming for a little tete-a-tete when a…well, I can only term her a buttinski of the first order appeared out of nowhere and exclaimed, “I can’t believe you made Clare —–!” I had to withdraw and take several brisk turns around the room before I could rejoin the conversation with a modicum of civility! Oh, the trials endured by crime fiction devotees…On the other hand, I dearly hope this will be my biggest problem for the foreseeable future.)
For my part, having recently finished the most recent entry in the series, I elected not to re-read To Darkness and To Death in its entirety. Therefore, there was little I could contribute to the discussion of specific plot points. The novel’s action takes place in a 24-hour time span, something I did not recall from my initial reading. This compression of events can be confusing for the reader, and I gather that it did cause problems for some in the group. In fact, what was particularly interesting in this case was that although reactions to the novel as a whole were not uniformly positive, the discussion itself went exceptionally well (due in no small part to the leader’s resourcefulness and extensive preparation). Various plot points were analyzed, and we also talked about the larger issue of land use, which is an important element of the story.
In fact, setting plays a vital role in this entire series.The fictional town of Miller’s Kill is located just outside New York’s Adirondack State Park. The cold is pervasive in these novels; snow is a frequent occurence, and the threat of an immobilizing blizzard is ever-present.
And then, of course, there’s Clare, the Episcopal priest, and Russ Van Alstyne, the married sheriff. They’re in love, and they shouldn’t be. They can’t be. But they are. Their relationship, if it can be called that, is the chief source of tension in this series, and the main reason that many of us are hooked on it. That – and Spencer-Fleming’s terrific writing and great sense of humor.
Clare Fergusson is a wonderful creation. Although Marge was somewhat disappointed that we don’t get to witness more of her priestly functions in this novel, it is still readily apparent that she is a caring, spiritual person. And her love for Russ is tearing her apart.
Eventually the topic of conversation broadened to include the subject of relationships in mystery series. When do they work? When do they stop working? Does the edifice collapse if you marry off the protagonists? Marge and Ann agreed that this is what happened to Sue Henry’s Jessie Arnold series. How about Robert B. Parker’s perennial lovers, Spenser and Susan Silverman? Aren’t they a bit long in the tooth for all that canoodling? Maybe, but Parker’s trademark irreverent wisecracking seems to save the day. I personally feel that the issue of relationship problems of individuals in law enforcement is handled with exceptional tact and empathy by Archer Mayor in his Joe Gunther novels.