Rev Clare Fergusson is the rector at St Alban's, the Episcopal church at Miller's Kill, New York, in the Adirondack mountains. She is a tough ex-Army helicopter pilot, aged 35 when we first meet her. She had served in the regular army for 10 years before she became a priest.
When Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne first saw her, he thought she looked an "athletic- looking woman .... She was plain, no makeup and nondescript dark blond hair scraped back in a ponytail ... high cheekbones and a long thin nose that was perfect for looking down at folks". But, later on he falls for her and tells her she's "memorable .... one fine-looking woman". He also recognizes that "she was about as weak and vulnerable as a Sherman tank. And about as subtle". She speaks with a "southern Virginia drawl".
She is impulsive and brave, and , as she says, "not an easy person to bully". She knows very well that, "I have this tendency to speak before I've had a chance to think everything out". But she is always ready to listen to people and go out of her way to help them.
She puts up with being called "Reverend" although "she much preferred to be addressed by her first name than by a naked 'Reverend' ". She remembers that her grandmother had always insisted that "Reverend is an adjective after 'the', not a title after 'hello' ... A proper word for female priests corresponding with 'Father' had been on her wish list for years". She may not be one for profound spiritual experiences, but says that "I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending us His spirit, giving us strength, and peace, and insight. I don't think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen".
Julia Spencer-Fleming (1962- ), the author, is a former attorney who lives and works in a 190-year-old farmhouse outside Portland, Maine with, as she says, three children, two dogs and one husband. A graduate of Ithaca College, George Washington University and the University of Maine School of Law, she took up writing while still a stay-at-home mother of two. During the time it took to finish her first book, she got a full-time job at a Portland, Maine, law firm and then had a third child. Her first book, In the Bleak Midwinter, was published as a result of winning a competition which laid down that there must not be too much sex or violence. It was subsequently given some six awards. She herself has been a a lifelong Episcopalian, worshipping at St Luke's Cathedral, Portland, Maine. She explains that she chose an army past for her heroine so that there could be plenty of action.
In the Bleak Midwinter (2002)
In the Bleak Midwinter is set in snow covered Miller's Kill, New York, and well communicates the intense cold and danger of the ice covered roads that the newly arrived Reverend Clare struggles to cope with in her little red MG. She finds a baby boy abandoned at her church door, and sets about helping Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne track down the mother - then she finds the first murder victim. It all leads her into a dramatic confrontation with the murderer on the icy wastes and she eventually risks her life in an attempt to save the child. But she's quite capable of knocking out an assailant, then, when he's lying apparently unconscious at her feet, kicking him "as hard as she could between his legs".
It's quite a good story with strong characterization of the two main characters, although some parts (especially long conversations about possible suspects) seem unnecessarily prolonged and slow-moving. There are some conversations too that don't seem quite relevant to the plot, as when Clare tells Russ about her younger sister's experience of agonizing colo-rectal cancer and her death from an overdose of Valium pills, given her by a boy friend. But it's a moving account of something that sounds as if it could really have happened.
The Rev Clare describes her church life as "hectic" but it does not seem to take up too much of her time. She makes a lively protagonist, and, although attracted to Russ, remembers that he's a married man and, at the end of the book, dutifully sends him home to his wife.
A Fountain Filled with Blood (2003)
A Fountain Filled with Blood starts with vicious assaults on gays, and ends with murders. It is, of course, The Rev Clare herself who finds the garroted corpse of the first victim. She and Police Chief Russ wonder if it could all be connected with the planned construction of an out-of-town spa. Then things get even more violent and Clare has to risk her life piloting a helicopter she has stolen, much to the fear of Russ, who is at first too frightened to climb in with her. He (understandably) asks her, "What kind of a priest are you anyway?"
She replies, "I don't know, Russ. I guess I'm the kind who flies helicopters and speaks without thinking and screws up on a regular basis .... But I'll tell you one thing .... I'm not the sort who would let a man die because she's too chickenshit to climb into a machine!" So he is shamed into joining her.
No, it isn't wildly likely, but there is certainly more action than in the previous book. It seems a pity, though, that the author still insists on telling everything at such length, whether exciting (such as pursuit sequences) or not (such as Clare's lengthy exploration of the spa site).Her relationship with Russ goes up and down, the lowest point being when she accuses him of being partly responsible for the death of a gay man because he had "refused to warn the press Saturday that someone was going around beating up gay men". In the end she even agrees to celebrate a homosexual union, although she knew her local bishop would not approve. But, as she says, "I have to live as I believe Christ leads me".
Some of the dialogue is distinctly racy. When Clare admits, "I can't tell a dahlia from a daisy," Hugh Partiger, the Englishman with whom she is mildly flirting, replies, "you're obviously not into floral sects."
"Mr Partiger," she replied, I don't discuss what I do in my garden bed with anybody."
"It's nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "For most women, it's just a matter of finding the right tool." She then took another drink, "enjoying herself immensely.
"There seems nothing Clare won't attempt. She eavesdrops what is going on in a bedroom that she had let herself into, then finds herself hiding behind a shower curtain, while one of the suspects relieves himself just a few inches away from her. She wonders if two men might be going to have sex, and decided that "there was simply no way she was going to huddle unseen, like a rabbit, and eavesdrop on that". Luckily, it didn't happen - but even so she has to make a hasty escape by dropping out of a window.
Finally, while Russ heroically stands right in front of a plane about to take off, Clare jams a wheel chock under its wheel. They make quite a pair, even if their relationship stays strictly platonic. She may not be the world's most convincing priest, but she certainly leads an eventful life.
Out of the Deep I Cry (2004)
Out of the Deep I Cry is concerned with the sudden disappearance of Dr Allan Rouse, a long-term physician at a charitable clinic, and how The Rev Clare Fergusson and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne work together to find out what has happened to him. There are dramatic moments, as when Russ falls and breaks his leg, when Clare chases after a suspect, and when the villain abandons Clare and Russ to drown in a flooded cellar, but, of course, every reader knows that both she and he are certain to survive.
However, their cautious relationship continues to develop and, in one moment of extreme danger , they even kiss - but, as at the time they seem about to drown, he tells her, "This isn't the time. Or the place."
"There isn't any time or place, she wanted to cry."
All this is quite interesting, much more so, in fact, than the basic story-line that is even more prolonged than usual. It's not a good sign that the book runs to nearly 400 pages. There are too many lengthy conversations, and not a strong enough story to keep it going that long, and cutting back to what happened many years slows it down even more.
An example of the need for editing is when Clare reads an old diary left by a doctor. Parts of this are relevant to her investigations, but the author includes pages of his references to other patients which seem to have no point at all, except to suggest what it was like to be a doctor in 1930.Clare is still getting occasional telephone calls from the Englishman Hugh Partiger and enjoys joking/flirting with him on the 'phone. The church secretary warns her, "Don't wait too long on Hugh. Sooner or later, you, like the (church) roof, will start sagging and leaking. You have to nail a man down before then, if you want one". But it is married Russ whom she keeps thinking of. To him, she is "the damnedest priest I've ever met".
"I worry about that," she replied. "I'm not so sure I'm really cut out for parish life. Doing good is one thing. Being good is a lot harder".
To Darkness and to Death (2005)
To Darkness and to Death is the rather confusing story of a missing heiress who had decided to sell her family's Adirondack estate to a nature conservancy. She disappears on the very day that the land was due to be transferred. Rev Clare Fergusson is called in to join the Miller's Kill search and rescue operation, although she is really meant to be getting ready for the bishop's annual visit to her church.
There are various assaults and murders, and even two major explosions, with a cast of rather unattractive characters, but it is difficult to feel really involved with them, excepting always Clare and Russ. All the more pity then, that Clare is not more at the center of things throughout. Her problem with her growing sexual awareness of Russ (and indeed of the English Hugh Partiger who hovers in the background) is not helped by the advice of the Bishop's right-hand man, old Deacon Aberforth, who solemnly warns her, "The only female clergy who are successful at celibacy are the ones who are too old and dried up to care or the ones who are too mannish to attract members of the opposite sex." And he advises her, "Find a nice young man and settle down". Russ, of course, is 50 and heavily married.
Clare and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne's romance develops to such a stage that Russ sees he has no alternative but to tell his wife Linda. It all ends melodramatically with a dead body found lying in her house. You have to wait for the next book to find out who it is - but you can guess who is going to be accused of the murder.
All Mortal Flesh (2006)
All Mortal Flesh takes on from where the previous book leaves off. The stabbed and badly mutilated body in the Val Alstynes' house is identified as that of Linda Van Alstyne. Both her husband, Police Chief Russ, and his almost-lover, Reverend Clare Fergusson, are obvious suspects.
This story really lives up to the cover description: "A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mystery", as they are both heavily involved throughout, as is her church background and his police one. Her Bishop has sent her a deacon, The Rev Elizabeth de Groot, to help her - or rather to keep an eye on her since she had earned his displeasure by unofficially blessing a homosexual union. Elizabeth is an energetic little woman, some ten years older than Clare, and happy to undertake responsibilities that Clare does not find so congenial or simply does not have time for. She had not been accepted for the priesthood herself, but tells Clare that this has given her "a reverence for the role of priest that will help me help you". Clare warns her, "I'm not really comfortable with the whole reverence thing. Ordination didn't suddenly make me a better and nicer person".
Then an ambitious, grim-faced and humorless woman, Inspector Jensen, is sent to take over from Russ while she investigates his case. Both these characters come across as real (and, in the case of Inspector Jensen, really unpleasant) people, and it all helps to make this the most interesting book in the series. The anguish of the would-be lovers, Russ and Clare, is well caught too. As he tells her, "I wanted both of you, wanted to keep my happy wife and happy home, and I wanted you, not just meeting you for lunch at the goddamn diner, I wanted you, Clare, in my bed, underneath me, I wanted everything. And now I have nothing".
Clare finds that "it was impossible to think of herself when confronted with others' overwhelming needs.... but she could not forget Russ's pain, his poor murdered wife, or the guilt - equal parts sin and complicity - that clung to her like a wet dress". So "she prayed, comforting rote prayers she had always known by heart." But deep down she knows, as she told Russ, "I'm such a screwup as a priest. I should never have left the army". Russ "wanted to tell her no, she was a wonderful priest, and if he could ever believe in a God, it was when he saw Him shining out of her".
The story certainly holds the interest throughout, even if towards the end of it, rather unlikely things start happening in quick succession. Russ discovers that one of his colleagues had had an affair with his wife Linda. As Inspector Jensen exclaims, "this is the most fucked-up department I've ever been sent to. It's like a fucking Peyton Place". She has a point.
Clare has been at Miller's Kill for two years now and has important decisions to make about Russ, and about her future. The ending is surprising - and leaves you wondering whether or not there will be another book. Recommended.
I Shall Not Want (2008)
In I Shall Not Want, a new officer in the police department, a breaking-and-entering, and trouble within his own family, keep Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne busy enough to ignore the pain of losing his wife - and the woman he loves. She, of course, is The Rev Clare Ferguson who has troubles of her own, involving not only her love affair, but her relations with her church. Her concern for the migrant community leads to her increasing involvement when a Mexican farmhand stumbles over a Latino man killed with a single shot to the back of his head. The discovery of two more bodies executed in the same way ignites fears that a serial killer is loose in the close-knit community. Russ and Clare get closely involved not only in the murder hunt but with each other.
Described on the cover as the author's "most suspenseful, passionate novel yet", it certainly contains both realistic sexual descriptions and a lot of tough violence (perhaps too much to be entirely credible). After a highly dramatic start with Russ apparently being shot dead, most of the book is then taken up by a flashback explaining the circumstances which led up to this. This certainly prepares the reader for the shooting, but it somehow makes it less interesting as you know where it is all leading. Of course, at the end, everything gets sorted out, but at a fairly leisurely pace - although the author keeps a final surprise for the last few pages.
In my particular copy something very odd indeed happens on pages 21-52 when we are suddenly launched, right in the middle of a sentence, into a tedious explanation all about "Harmonic Wealth" and how "it wasn't necessary to suffer to love God. Moreover, loving God didn't mean you couldn't appreciate a beautiful lifestyle .... Your ability to attract money in your life is a reflection of your ability to manifest your God power into physical form."
It all sounded like a take-off of one of those "God means you to be wealthy" books and I thought it must have been the musings of a mad master criminal, and couldn't wait to see how it would all be explained. But it never was. It seems it must have been a section from a real (perfectly serious) book called Harmonic Wealth by a James Arthur Ray that had been accidentally included! I wonder how many faulty copies were printed.
The growing relationship between the police department's latest recruit, Hadley Knox, and her immediate boss, Kevin Flynn, is particularly well handled and they both come alive as real people. Clare herself is not always quite as convincing, and some of the more melodramatic action scenes are a bit over-the-top, and not really quite as exciting as the author must have hoped. But they are still welcome flashes of humor as when Clare, affected by the smell of burning pot from a blazing barn, watches the world explode around her, and, with a wall of flame racing towards her, just says, "Lord-a-mercy. That's not good".
One was a Soldier (2011)
One was a Soldier sees five veterans, who have just returned to Miller's Kill,trying to make sense of their experiences fighting in Iraq. One of them is The Rev Clare Ferguson who (much to the reader's surprise) has just returned from 18 months in Iraq and wants to forget the things she had just seen as a combat helicopter pilot. But it turns out that she now has both drink and drug problems. And her relationship with Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne does not progress as smoothly as she had hoped. Following the mysterious death of one of the veterans, Claire insists on violently rejecting Russ's conclusion that it must have been suicide and sets about proving him wrong. Then another death follows.
There are realistic descriptions of the veterans' problems with a particularly sympathetic portrayal of a high school track star who had ended up as a double amputee, but the plot ( involving, we are asked to believe, the theft of $1 million) develops in such a slow-moving and ponderous way that one soon starts to lose interest in the overlong conversations, and even parts that could have been exciting, such as car chases, tend to get submerged under a mass of unnecessary detail.
Clare herself with all her drink and drug problems seems quite a different character from the Clare of the previous books. and the arch enemy, Lieutenant Colonel Arlene Seelye of the US Army Military Police isn't any too convincing either. There are quotations from the Book of Common Prayer at the start of each section, but the relevance is not always apparent, and it really needs more than this to make Clare into a thoroughly convincing priest. She is still strong on good works, but is perfectly happy to let Russ spends nights over at her place, and at one stage even goes as far as threatening, “I might snap and decide to kill myself for no good reason.
"Later on the author comments, "Claire hadn't even been married yet, and she was already a failure at being Mrs Van Alstein", for, however much she might annoy Russ, she still won't give up her relentless pursuit of the villain. But it is the death roll in Iraq, together with the suffering of veterans, that seems to preoccupy the writer. It is a theme that does not fit easily into this sort of romantic detective story.
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