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Feb 042014

Following up on the story of the Rev. Clare Fergusson’s recovery from serving in Iraq, Through the Evil Days took what was for me an unexpected turn. Instead of delving into her thoughts about how dramatically her life is changing (marriage, pregnancy, sobriety, PTSD, etc.), the book is almost all action — despite the fact that it’s supposed to be Russ and Clare’s long-delayed honeymoon.

Russ has found a lake house that he’d like to buy and renovate with Clare, so they decide to go there for a quiet honeymoon; even when a massive ice storm is heading their way, Russ remains determined to go because so often in his first marriage he allowed work to interfere with family time, and he doesn’t want to let that happen again. Right motive, wrong decision.

As it turns out, one of their closest neighbors on the frozen lake is a shady character who appears to be tied to a missing child from Millers Kill. And probably to meth distribution and a bunch of other bad stuff. So, as the ice storm freezes them in place, Russ and Clare feel obligated to figure out what’s going on next door. If the child is there, she’s in dire need of medical help.

In the meantime, there’s lots of other intrigue going on in Millers Kill, where Russ is police chief. Kevin and Hadley’s on-again/off-again relationship rekindles, which is awkward when they’re also the investigative team assigned to finding the missing child. The never-ending ice storm causes no end of problems for the police, and without the chief Lyle MacAuley has to figure out how to handle it all, while the department also being threatened by the budgetary ax. The mess only gets worse when Hadley’s ex-husband shows up and tries to use their children to get what he wants.

The story is told chronologically, jumping back and forth from the lake to Millers Kill, which means every time something breaks on one side, you hop right to the other and have to wait to find out what happened at the other location. Oy! It never slows down.

And amidst all that both Kevin and Hadley and Clare and Russ are trying to figure out where their relationships are heading. When Russ blurts out to a state trooper how he really feels, it’s hard to imagine how Clare is going to be able to get past it.

But that relationship stuff is on the back burner here. Through the Evil Days is mostly about tramping through the woods with guns, getting caught and escaping again, a dog getting shot at on two separate occasions, threatening ex-husbands and angry meth kingpins. If it’s contemplation of your career or life, as Clare and Russ were expecting, that you want, it’s not what you’ll get. But this is Russ and Clare: we know they’ll work it out in the end.

P.S. I read the copy that I gave my mom for Christmas. See how that works out?

Feb 072013

A year and a half has passed since the events of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s I Shall Not Want, and the Rev. Clare Fergusson has changed. Not surprising after doing a tour of duty as a helicopter pilot in the National Guard.

The book opens with Clare and several other veterans of the Iraq war gathering at the Millers Kill community center for a therapy session. It’s not entirely clear why Clare needs to be there at first, but that’s revealed as the story progresses. Also among the vets is our old friend Eric McCrea, one of Russ’s deputies in the MKPD, whose anger management issues are apparent on the job and off. Together the group begins to face the demons they brought home from the war.

The mystery begins when one of the group’s members, bookkeeper Tally McNab, is found dead. Everyone believes it’s suicide, but Clare won’t accept that, even when it turns out that Tally’s connected to war-related criminal activity. The book continues on two tracks, the investigation into Tally’s death and the problems the veterans have adjusting to life back home. The latter is presented sympathetically but unflinchingly — even Clare, who should be as well positioned as anyone to deal with war’s effects, struggles. But then, nothing is ever really easy for Clare! It’s not always an easy book to read, but it’s worth the investment.

If you haven’t been reading the Clare Fergusson-Russ Van Alstyne series, I don’t recommend that you start with this one. However, I read on Julia Spencer-Fleming’s website that the publisher is putting out the earlier books in the series for only $2.99 on e-book. If I hadn’t already read them all, I’d jump on that offer in a second!

Jun 222012

The last book in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne series, To Darkness and To Death, left me cold. In fact, I completed my review with a plea:

All this dithering around about being in love but being unable to be together has completely gotten on my nerves. I hope that one of you who’s read the series will assure me that this problem is resolved at some point!

All Mortal Flesh, my friends, is the answer to that plea. The book begins with the Rev. Clare (she’s an Episcopal priest) hiding out in a cabin in the Adirondack mountains, trying to figure out how to resolve the whole “Russ is married to another woman” problem. Russ, meanwhile, has confessed his love of the reverend to his wife, who promptly sent him packing to his mother’s house and then got a cat. That last point turns out to be big.

If Russ and Clare felt guilty before, how on earth are they going to get over the fact that a friend has just found Mrs. Van Alstyne’s hacked and disfigured body on her own kitchen floor?

That should get your attention. And the surprising conclusion to the mystery and to the Clare-Russ relationship will have you looking for the next book, right away.

Feb 292012

I like Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series a lot, but I didn’t really care for this book. In fact, if I weren’t already emotionally committed to reading the next book in the series, I probably wouldn’t have finished this one.

The books in the series (prior to this one: In the Bleak Midwinter, A Fountain Filled with Blood, and Out of the Deep I Cry) usually have two primary plots, a mystery and the ongoing relationship between Clare, who’s an Episcopal priest, and Russ, who’s the chief of police in Miller’s Kill, a small town in the Adirondack mountains. In To Darkness and To Death, I didn’t like the way either of these played out.

First the mystery. The whole sordid story begins with the planned sale of an old Adirondack great camp to a conservationist organization. Seems like a nice thing to do, but in so doing, the van der Hoeven family (three grown siblings named Louisa, Eugene and Millie) is upsetting the already fragile economy of Miller’s Kill, with both a logging company and a paper mill set to go out of business. There are many possible suspects, then, when Millie van der Hoeven goes missing. Clare is called in as part of the search and rescue team, and Russ gets involved with the police investigation.

The whole story is told as the day unfolds, so rather than chapters there are time periods that sometimes overlap as the various investigators and perpetrators stories unfold. This should serve to make it exciting and suspenseful, like an episode of the TV series “24,” but it didn’t work for me. Much like an episode of “24,” this story was too complicated and incredible to be believed.

Here’s what I mean: along with the missing Millie, another young woman associated with the sale of the land is beaten almost to death, and other people are variously stabbed, bombed, thrown off towers and assaulted; several different people who’ve never been on the wrong side of the law all seem to spontaneously spiral into violence or covering up violence; and pretty much anyone who does anything wrong is trying to figure out how to pin it on someone else. I found it completely unrealistic, most of all Millie’s day of being held captive at various points by three different people. Yes, I just said that.

And then there’s Clare and Russ. Oh, please. My grandfather claimed that he asked my grandma to marry him because she told him to “piss or get off the pot.” (Obviously he made the right choice.) All this dithering around about being in love but being unable to be together has completely gotten on my nerves. I hope that one of you who’s read the series will assure me that this problem is resolved at some point!

Oct 262011

Well, well, well, Reverend Fergusson, isn’t this a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into this time?

Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are back in the third book in the mystery series by Julia Spencer-Fleming, Out of the Deep I Cry (2004). What starts off as Clare’s church’s desperate need for cash to fix the roof soon deepens into mysteries of the past and present, all tied together in the story of the Ketchem family.

One of the members of the church’s board, Lacey, agrees to use family money to pay for the repairs, but this in turn takes money out of a trust founded by her mother, Jane Ketchem, that had been helping to fund a health clinic for low-income residents. Clare’s obviously somewhat conflicted about that, but she’s got other problems, too. She wants to help a young woman who’s refusing to get her children vaccinated; the clinic was funded following a tragic incident related to vaccinations and the mysterious disappearance of Jonathon Ketchem. Thus there are mysteries in both the Ketchem past and Clare’s present. And, as always, there’s a definite attraction between Russ and Clare.

There’s water everywhere in this book, starting with a suicide attempt thwarted by young Russ in the prologue and Clare’s leaky church roof, and ending with a flooding basement that — literally — throws Clare and Russ together. How is she going to get out of this one?

Book #11 in the Mystery and Suspense Challenge

Aug 172011

First of all, the title (which comes from a hymn) is a lot more gory than this book, so don’t let that put you off. A Fountain Filled with Blood (2004) is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s second Reverend Clare Fergusson book, and like the first it combines a village cozy feel with an action-thriller ending.

This time the mystery involves a series of hate crimes, beatings and then a murder of gay men, which involves Clare not only because she’s appalled by the crimes but because she finds the murder victim… this is becoming a habit with you, Clare. She again joins with the chief of police, Russ Van Alstyne, to solve the crimes, and she again tries to get her staid congregation to take a stand. There’s a whole subplot about the relationship between Clare and Russ, and another involving a new spa/resort which is good for the Adirondack economy but maybe not so good for the environment — including a very funny scene in which Russ’ own mother participates in an illegal demonstration — so there’s plenty of character development in addition to the interest generated by the mystery plot.

This time the action-thriller ending gives us a chance to see the veteran put her helicopter piloting skills to work in an effort to save a man. Clare’s religion and her background as a veteran combine to make her a complex person who’s perhaps uniquely qualified to help and serve the people of Miller’s Kill.

Another highly readable mystery from Julia Spencer-Fleming — with more to come.

Book #8 in the Mystery and Suspense Challenge

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