Clare Ferguson Mystery Progress Report

Everyone knows one another in the small town of Millers Kill.  Clare Ferguson, the Episcopal priest is relatively new, but Chief Van Alstyne went to high school with the town leaders and knows the town murderers.  In a complicated plot that includes kidnapping, blackmail, and murder, To Darkness and To Death, the fourth in the Spencer-Fleming series, keeps the suspense high on Chief Van Alstyne’s fiftieth birthday.  Loggers and heirs to a paper mill conflict in the sale of land to a luxury resort.  Rev. Clare is involved in the chase, as she vacillates between a new love interest and her yearning for the married Chief Russ, her soul mate.  Chief Russ has decided to tell his wife about his feelings for Clare.  And the plot thickens…

The next in the series, All Mortal Flesh, opens with a murder – the wife of the Police Chief Van Alsytne.  Both Clare and Russ are suspects, and they are working together again – this time to save themselves.   Another wild mystery ride…I won’t spoil it for you, but Julia Spencer Fleming will keep you reading into the night with this one – with a surprise ending you will not expect.

If you’ve read Julia Spencer-Fleming’s first book – In the Bleak Midwinter – you may have been hooked on both the romance and the murder mystery.  Solving the murders along with the Rev. Clare Ferguson, Episcopal woman priest, and the married police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, is fun and satisfying, but it’s the romance between the two that keeps me looking for the next book.

Spencer-Fleming has 7 in the series; unless you like spoilers, you need to read them in order:

  1. In the Bleak Midwinter
  2. A Fountain Filled with Blood
  3. Out of the Deep I Cry
  4. To Darkness and To Death
  5. All Mortal Flesh
  6. I Shall Not Want
  7. One Was a Soldier

More Clare Ferguson Mysteries – A Fountain Filled with Blood and Out of the Deep I Cry

After reading Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In the Bleak Midwinter, I was hooked on the crime-busting team of Clare Ferguson, Episcopal priest and former Army helicopter pilot, with her foil and possible love interest, police chief Russ Van Alstyne.  Following the advice of the friend who introduced me to the series, I’ve been reading the books in order of publication – although I am tempted to jump to the end to find out how the brewing romance between the Rev. Clare and Chief Russ (married to someone else) turns out.

The second in the series – A Fountain Filled With Blood – has the intrepid team following a trail of homophobic murders in the small upstate New York town of Millers Kill.  Three murders, and Clare keeps getting the leads to suspects that she happily passes on to the Chief – when she’s not busy organizing candlelight vigils or offering pre-marital counseling.

Spencer-Fleming maintains the suspense with gory bodies, likely suspects and clever banter, but also offers some humor:  Clare hiding behind a shower curtain and jumping out the bathroom window to avoid being caught snooping.   She later redeems her flaky behavior with a daring helicopter rescue that reads like watching a good action flick.  And the mastermind to all the murders is not who you think – Spencer-Fleming keeps you guessing to the end.

Mrs. Van Alstyne makes an appearance in this book, but it’s not the Chief’s wife; it’s his feisty seventy-year-old mother.   And the possibilities between Russ and Clare just keep simmering…

Of course, I had to immediately continue with the next installment – Out of the Deep I Cry – a year later and Chief Russ and Rev. Clare now have a regular lunch date.  Spencer-Fleming always uses a current issue to wrap around her murders: abandoned babies, gay rights, environmental pollution. This time the controversy is over baby inoculations, missing husbands, and shady money. Spencer-Fleming, once again, mixes the right formula of suspense and realistic characters to keep the plot flowing with surprises up to the final pages, tapping into the town’s history to solving the puzzle.

And the simmer between her two main characters? They finally kiss.

I’ve already ordered the next two books in the series from the library: To Darkness and to Death; All Mortal Flesh.   I can’t wait…

In the Bleak Midwinter

A newborn baby is abandoned on the church steps…a young woman is found murdered… Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In the Bleak Midwinter begins her Clare Ferguson detective series.

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.