Clare Fergusson is the priest at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Miller's Kill, New York. Untraditional in every sense, she's not just a "lady," she's a tough ex-Army chopper pilot, and nobody's fool. When a mystery appears at her church door, she meets the town's police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, who's also ex-Army and a cynical good shepherd for the stray sheep of his hometown. As they start investigating, they discover a world of trouble, an attraction to each other...
Julia Spencer-Fleming's novels have won the Macavity, Agatha, Anthony and Dilys Awards.
‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’ is the Julia Spencer-Fleming mystery-thriller series (with a touch of romance), currently with eight books and more scheduled.
I don’t read much crime fiction, but the series I do read I am unfailingly loyal to – Karin Slaughter’s ‘Grant County’ and ‘Will Trent’ series mostly. Normally Slaughter’s instalments are all the crime-fic I need; occasionally I’ll venture to lightweight “cozy mysteries”, but Slaughter is the only hard-boiled I read religiously and that’s mostly thanks to her books being so cutthroat and gruesome they’re about all I can stomach. Balancing out Slaughter’s macabre explorations is the other reason I stick so closely to her crime series – the characters and their complex relationships. For that reason, whenever I get the occasional whim to go looking for a new crime series to tide me over, I always look for something that also balances the thriller/relationships ratio. And I found it in Spencer-Fleming’s ‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’.
I do so love discovering a series with a hefty backlist for me to dive into, but before I started the ‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’, I wanted some assurances that there was some sort of emotional exploration running through the books to propel the characters as much as their search for justice with each new instalment. I can’t read something like ‘Jack Reacher’, I’ve tried, but a series in which a protagonist blows in and blows out of towns and leaves a trail of conquests in his wake (never to be seen again) is just not for me. I want relationships to carry the series, as much as a good whodunit with each new book. So when I read a lengthy (spoiler-y!) review of the series on ‘Heroes and Heartbreakers’, I was thrilled. Janga provides a quote from Spencer-Fleming, about her initial idea for the series;
I knew I wanted to tell a love story about a brand-new female Episcopal priest and a married small-town chief of police. I knew I wanted it to be smart, and grown-up, and to ask questions like, “What do we sacrifice to honor our commitments?” and “What if finding your soul mate only leads to heartache?” I didn’t know if the ending would be happy or tragic. I didn’t know if I could balance the story of Russ and Clare, and the people of Millers Kill whose lives intersect with theirs, and the demands of a tightly-plotted mystery. I really didn’t know the central question over five—soon to be six—books was going to be: Will they or won’t they?
I read first book ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ over a weekend, and then proceeded to inhale the next seven books over the course of a fortnight … thanks to my well-stocked local library, I had all the books at my fingertips and the romantic cliff-hangers at the end of each book were certainly enough to keep me on a roll.
Each book has a mystery whodunit at its centre – and they vary in appeal. First book ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ concerns a newborn baby being left on the doorstop of Clare’s church, and a few days later the baby’s suspected teen mother is found murdered … this was probably my favourite mystery of all the books, for offering up brilliantly complex circumstances under which to meet Clare and Russ. Other books didn’t hold my interest quite so much – third book ‘Out of the Deep I Cry’ flips between present-day and a cold case from 1930 which failed to appeal. Fourth book ‘To Darkness and to Death’ was my least favourite because it’s told from more than just Clare and Russ’s usual perspective to instead encompass a number of criminals, murderers, and victims in an unintentional comedy-of-errors mystery which sees one kidnapping having a domino-effect that leads to murder and terrorism. Yikes.
But one great thing about this mystery series is that Julia Spencer-Fleming doesn’t rely on violence against women to drive her mysteries. Much like police procedurals on TV, mystery authors can sometimes rely on the old “damsel in distress” storyline for each and every book – oftentimes mangling it into “all the awful ways women can be killed” with each new instalment. Karin Slaughter has been accused of this – she addresses it in her FAQ even – and maybe because I read her so religiously she’s about all that I can stomach in that arena. So coming into Spencer-Fleming’s series where the mysteries are dynamic and fresh, without relying on the death of numerous women in each new instalment, is much appreciated.
Small towns have the same evils that big cities do, just in smaller numbers. And instead of some anonymous stranger, the evil is always someone’s neighbour or husband or friend. That’s the hard part, that you can’t blame some ‘other’ when awful things happen. The ‘other’ is one of us.
—In the Bleak Midwinter Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, #1
Of course the real draw-card of this series – and what had me gobbling up 8 books in one fortnight – is the tangled partnership of Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne. Clare is an ex fighter pilot, and Russ is a Vietnam Vet quite a few years older than Clare, self-proclaimed atheist and married to boot. These two get along like a house-on-fire from the first – both of them straight shooters who normally play their cards close to their chests, but with one another they find an unlikely and instantaneous friendship …
“Never? You never break down and cry?”
A flush rose in her cheeks. “Okay, almost never. Certainly not with someone I haven’t known for very long.” She clapped her hands to her cheeks. “Oh, this is embarrassing.”He sat in one of the four wooden chairs clustered around the kitchen table. “Funny. It doesn’t feel as if we haven’t known each other for very long. Does it?”She blinked. “Honestly? No. It doesn’t.”
—In the Bleak Midwinter Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, #1
Over the course of 8 books, Russ and Clare acknowledge their feelings for one another and then wrestle with the many reasons they can’t be together – his marriage, their age-difference, the impropriety of the local Episcopal priest and the Chief of Police … it’s a delicious tug-of-war that plays out with both their moral compasses, yet underneath it all is their simmering, growing affection for one another that cannot be denied;
He kissed her, kissed her right down to her foundations, kissed her until she was a cathedral burning: lead melting, saints shattering, not a stone left on stone. He lifted his hands, hers, pressed her against the bookcase, interlocking their fingers and palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss and the edge of the shelves but into the back of her hands, hanging there with his sweet weight against her, nailed to the wood by her own reckless desire.
Then his hands were on her face, her jaw, sliding through her hair, plucking out the pins keeping it in place, tracing the edge of her collar. “How does this come off?” he asked, his voice like dusk against her ear.“Uhn.” Thinking was like sweeping through cobwebs. “It buttons. In the back.”The rub of his knuckle, a tug, and her collar came free.
—I Shall Not Want Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, #6
I can see why romance readers have found their way to this mystery series. It’s a darn delicious set-up, and Julia Spencer-Fleming is good about gifting her readers’ pay-off to all the forbidden romance. If I have any complaints about this aspect of the series, it’s that Russ’s wife – Linda – is severely under-developed, a limp non-character whose sole purpose is to be a roadblock. I think there could have been more wrung out of this forbidden-fruit aspect to the Russ/Clare dynamic if Linda had been allowed to be a more well-rounded character.
But I can’t deny it was this aspect to the series that saw me gobbling them up in two weeks. It’s in Russ and Clare’s relationship that Spencer-Fleming really shines, and the books take on more robust dimensions that ensure readers will keep coming back;
She knew Russ, knew him like she knew the Book of Common Prayer, carried him as a lamp beneath her breastbone.
— One Was a Soldier Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, #7
In book #6 ‘I Shall Not Want’ we get a concurrent storyline running alongside Russ and Clare’s – concerning a young rookie cop and the slightly older single mum who joins the force – theirs is also a romance, and as equally slow-simmered as Clare and Russ’s was in the very beginning.
I highly recommend ‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’ for those romance readers who want to try a mystery series, and for mystery fans who like plenty of human drama amidst the whodunnits.