Friday, June 29, 2012

A Little Cozy

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER by Julia Spencer-Fleming: The opening line of this reissued trade paperback is snappy: "It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby." In the small New York town of Miller's Kill, former Army helicopter pilot and current Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson is pulled into a murder mystery when she finds a baby on the steps of the church with a note indicating that his birth parents want the childless Burnses (Clare's parishioners) to adopt him. She takes on the role of advocate and counselor for the Burnses, bringing her into conflict with Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne. When the young mother is found brutally murdered, Clare's position as priest to many key players makes her helpful to the investigation. Naturally, Russ and Clare find a mutual attraction, but it's complicated by the existence of Russ's wife, though the marriage is struggling. The chemistry between Clare and Russ is fantastic, and her struggles with her faith (and status as a priest) and her sexuality are compelling and sympathetic, while Russ's agonizing over his failing marriage and attraction to such a compatible woman is grounded and realistic.

Clare is more nuanced than your standard cozy heroine. The military background and calling to priesthood certainly set her apart. She is also the first female priest in a parish that is not entirely on board with modern church doctrine, but she has a sense of humor about it.

"Can you tell me what happened, um..." What was he supposed to call her? "Mother?" "I go by Reverend, Chief. Ms. is fine, too." "Oh. Sorry. I never met a woman priest before." "We're just like the men priests, except we're willing to pull over and ask directions."

The abandoned baby inspires her to work on outreach and support for unwed mothers, an unpopular notion with the vestry. She also decides to ride along with Russ, in order to get a feel for the town and its problems. A thin excuse for a non-police officer to involve herself in an investigation, but that's standard in cozy mysteries. Also standard is the frustrating "too stupid to live heroine syndrome," which prompts female sleuths of all persuasions to wander off into danger without a weapon or a cell phone or letting anyone know where they've gone. But these are minor quibbles, and really, they're annoyances of the genre. The mystery is interesting and has plenty of suspects and twists and turns, but the complex relationship between Russ and Clare is what prompted me to download the next book in the series (A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD), and, one after the other, to read all the books in the series (six more after BLEAK MIDWINTER).

The bitter cold in Millers Kill is the perfect antidote to the summer heat.

Source disclosure: I received a review copy of this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.


Mary said...

Hmmm...sounds good, especially as an antidote to our summer heat wave.

allisonmariecat said...

I'll start reviewing Nordic crime fiction I've read over the past year soon - opening one of those can be like turning the air conditioning down five degrees!

Carol N Wong said...

I loved this book so much that I am slowly buying the rest of the series.