In The Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-FlemingSince my Small World disappointment, I’d been concentrating on Our Mutual Friend, a reliably great read which I won’t count here in 55@55 until I finish. (I’m now past the 500-page mark, out of 1362 pages.) But I wanted to grab a couple of paperbacks for my southern California vacation—so I stopped in at my favorite local bookstore, Baker Books. I usually check out the table of popular paperbacks right by the door, and there I found In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming.

Book jacket marketing

I confess that I often succumb to publishers’ attempts to market a book on the basis of the book jacket. At both bookstores and the library, I consider lots of unfamiliar books that just look interesting: something about the cover art and the title that begs “what about me?” Not that I always capitulate; but in this case the poetic title (from a carol by Christina Rossetti) and icy-blue illustration lured me in. That it was a murder mystery series (one I’d never heard of) with a twist (combining faith and suspense) got me to pick it up.

Generally, invocations of “faith” in relation to fiction would be off-putting; I’m not interested Jan Karon-type gloppiness or tales of love among the Amish. But the list of Spencer-Fleming’s awards—Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, etc.—and a quick scan of the first couple of pages intrigued me. And…I couldn’t resist the potential of another engrossing series.

Solving murders with a dose of faith

In the Bleak Midwinter is the first in the “Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne” series of murder mysteries, originally published in the early 2000s and now being re-issued by Minotaur Books in trade paperback editions. The premise is that Episcopal priest (and former Army pilot) Clare and chief of police Russ join forces to solve crimes in the small town of Millers Kill in upstate New York—romantic entanglements resulting.

The writing was good, the mystery interesting (even though I suspected the killer earlier than either Clare or Russ), the main characters engaging—and the setting offers something a little different. I did have a problem suspending my disbelief about aspects of Clare’s character. First, it seems unlikely that—just three weeks into her first parish and in the midst of the Advent-to-Christmas season—she could bypass planning for services and pageants in favor of meddling in crime. Then, it’s also surprising that unchurched, married Russ becomes her “only friend,” what with parishioners, three other parishes in town (with ministers of some sort), and conceivably a network of other Episcopalian churches in the region.  And while the set-up for the suspenseful snow scene relied heavily on Clare’s inadequate car and clothing, I hope that’s not going to be a running motif. She can’t convincingly be both ex-Army tough and dumb-blonde oblivious to the weather.

The verdict: I’m willing to try the next installment, A Fountain Filled With Blood (ooooh!), available as an ebook for $2.99 during February.