Review: In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Format: ebook, mass market paperback
Pub Date: 2003
Publisher: Minotaur
Length: 370 pages
FTC: Purchased myself

In an effort to read more mysteries this year, I picked up Julia Spencer-Fleming's much lauded first Clare Ferguson novel, In the Bleak Midwinter. Featuring a female Episcopal priest and a police chief, the novel is a mixture of genres that pushes a few buttons, surprises, and ultimately satisfies. With a few eye rolling episodes excepted (more on that later).

Clare Ferguson is the new priest for Millers Kill, a smaller town in upstate New York. Used to warmer climes, Clare is woefully unprepared for northern winters, and thus is constantly without warm boots, warm jackets, or a suitable car for the snow. Her day to day challenges are placed on the back burner when she finds an abandoned baby on the steps of her church. An event which causes her to cross paths with Russ Van Alstyne, the chief of police.

Russ is, not really surprisingly, astonished to discover that not only is the new priest of St. Alban's female, she's, smart, funny, approachable and down to earth. She convinces him to let her ride along on an evening patrol to gauge what kind of needs the town has and ends up discovering the body of a young girl, partially frozen in the snow. Unable to just let the police handle it, Clare continues to insert herself into both investigations: the search for the baby's parents and the quest for a killer.

This book hits quite a few of the mystery genre conventions: priest, plucky female amateur detective, small town with old fashioned values. But it also brings with it an incredibly vivid cast of characters and some unexpectedly gutsy choices.

Personally, I loved the friendship that develops between Clare and Russ. At first, it's companionable. And neighborly. And then it becomes clear that there is an attraction between the two. The only problem? Russ is married. Very, very married. And this edge to relationship is one of the book's strongest elements. It hovers in the background, largely unspoken and never acted upon. But the tension between the two is so strong that at times it rivals the suspense from the story.

The dual mysteries, no surprise, are related, and as Clare continues to interfere with/assist the investigation (and Russ), she finds herself in danger multiple times. And this is where I have some problems with the book.

Romance gets a bad wrap as a haven for Too Stupid To Live heroines (TSTL). Especially romantic suspense. These are the women who are so determined to prove they are capable and independent that they a) ignore sound advice and put themselves and everyone else in danger or b) think they are more competent than they are and put themselves and everyone else in danger. Or some combination of the two. Mystery has its own list of TSTL heroines. Some of the most popular female characters do this ALL THE TIME.  And I hate it. But I really hate that the author chooses to pull the TSTL card with Clare.

Clare, the former army pilot, doesn't have enough sense not to drive a tiny 2WD car in the snow to a remote area without telling anyone where she's going. And I'm just not buying that particular piece of characterization. That's not being impetuous. That's being stupid.

But aside from that, and a few other niggling episodes where Clare inexplicably loses her common sense, this book was everything everyone promised it was. It was memorable, it was heart wrenching, it was suspenseful, and it was entertaining. I can't wait to pick up the next in the series, and I'm glad to be discovering it so late. There are plenty of books to enjoy.

My Grade: B+

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