In the span of three weeks, I’ve finished an entire series of 7 novels. Call me crazy or obsessed, but I couldn’t put them down. And now I’m waiting impatiently for the next one! (It’s not out yet…come on Julia…write faster!)
I’m always struck by a series of books where I can fall in love with the characters, ride along with them on their adventures, and feel invested in every nuance and facet of their lives. The Clare Fergusson/ Russ Van Alstyne mystery series by Julia Spencer-Fleming is captivating, if a bit unconventional (which is why I love it, beyond the brilliant writing). These books are an excellent example of how to write a series and continue stories and themes.
Clare Fergusson is an single, ex-Army pilot who becomes an Episcopalian priest in the small town of Millers Kill, New York, deep in the Adirondack Mountains after her sister dies from cancer. She has a knack for getting herself into all kinds of compromising and perilous situations. Some call it fearlessness…others call it acting without thinking. But the overall theme of Clare is that she cares about others, to the point that she will do whatever she has to do to help them, even if it means sacrificing herself.
Of course, sticking her nose in investigations by the Millers Kill Police Department runs her into the Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne who is also ex-Army. In the first novel, “In The Bleak Midwinter,” newly-ordained Clare Fergusson is on thin ice as the first female priest of its small Episcopal church. The ancient regime running the parish covertly demands that she prove herself as a leader. However, her blunt manner, honed by years as an army pilot, is meeting with a chilly reception from some members of her congregation. Chief of Police Russ Van Alystyne , in particular, doesn’t know what to make of her, or how to address “a lady priest” for that matter.
The last thing she needs is trouble, but that is exactly what she finds. When a newborn baby is abandoned on the church stairs and a young mother is brutally murdered, Clare has to pick her way through the secrets and silence that shadow that town like the ever-present Adirondack mountains. As the days dwindle and the attraction grows between the novice priest and the married police chief, Clare will need all her faith, tenacity, and courage to stand fast against a killer’s icy heart.
The characters are fully and believably drawn and you will feel like they are your old friends. I admit, when I finished the last book, One Was a Soldier, I felt bereft like my dear, close friends had all gone on vacation and left me behind. In each book, Spencer-Fleming tackles a variety of hard-core social issues such as discrimination and hate crimes against Hispanics and gays, environmental issues, Autism and possible side effects of vaccinations, the diphtheria epidemic, immigration and illegal aliens, teenage mothers, PTSD and other effects from returning soldiers, and more. Each topic is handled with a deftness and delicate hand and not necessarily the outcome you would expect.
The books do have a theme of faith and spirituality running through them, but it is not overt or in-your-face. It is as much as part of the characters as the rest of the story. I’ve read many Christian-based novels and cringe when it becomes a trite, clichéd, battering-over-the-head, novel of religion. Spencer-Fleming doesn’t come across that way at all. Actually, with Clare Fergusson as the main character and example of faith, we discover that we can be messy Christians and it’s okay. A very refreshing, heartening, and enlightening point of view. (On a side note, if you’re interested in a deeper understanding of a “messy Christian,” check out Messy Spirituality by Mike Yaconelli.)
If you’ve never read any of the books in this series, do yourself a favor and start with the first book in her series (In the Bleak Midwinter) and read all her books in order. While each book is a self-contained mystery, the growth and relationship of the lead characters is really a huge part of this series and you’ll miss out on a large part of the enjoyment of this book if you start the series out-of-order.
Series In Order