Clare Ferguson, retired army helicopter pilot, and first female priest of the Episcopal church in a small upstate New York town, partners with Police Chief Russ van Alstyne to track the case. Clare has the strange combination of religious fervor and common sense with a practical view of people and herself; she is not the stereotypical minister in long robes, but she can be. Spencer-Fleming reminds you of Clare’s “calling,” with careful insertions of praying over dead bodies and counseling sessions with overwrought parishioners, but this attention only adds to the contrast between her day job and the incongruity of her background and personal life. In her mid-thirties, Clare is cool; she drives a little red sports car, jogs five miles every morning, drinks beer, and grinds her own special coffee blend. Spencer-Fleming matches her with no-nonsense Chief Russ, who happens to be married, has that determined square-jawed aura that commands respect, but reveals his emotional conflicts in private. Clare and Russ share a military background. Of course, there is going to be an attraction between the two.
But the mystery demands attention over any romantic sparks. With subtle wit that lets you in on the insider jokes, Spencer-Fleming develops the plot as well as her main character. She carefully sustains the suspense, with more murders and new suspects, just when you think you’ve figured out whodunnit. Claire’s good intentions backfire repeatedly, until a wild chase in a deserted snow-filled forest tests her army survival skills. Clare won’t be the only one holding her breath, as the killer closes in. But, it doesn’t end there; Spencer-Fleming works in another harrowing scene before it all wraps up – right before Christmas Eve service at St. Albans.
In the Bleak Midwinter is the first in a series of Clare Ferguson mysteries by Spencer-Fleming. After winning the St. Martin’s award for Best First Traditional Mystery Award in 2001, she has added six more books to her series. A friend recommended that I start with her first – and glad I did. Clare and Russ remind me of Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson in Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places.
I’ve found a new mystery author to follow.