I have not read a murder mystery for many years since my Book Club frowns on this genre, but the cold, snowy, winter weather caused me to look around for something to keep me occupied. Oddly, it was a Book Club member who recommended the novel.
This story is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s first novel, written in 2002, and has since been followed by seven sequels featuring the same characters in each one. The main protagonist, Clare Fergusson, is a former female Army helicopter pilot who answered the call to become an Episcopalian priest. The second character in the story is Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne, an atheist, who is also an Army veteran.
The two come together when Clare encounters a baby left on the doorstep of St. Alban’s Church, where Clare has received her first assignment as pastor. A note pinned on the baby states that his name is Cody and requests that it be given to parishioners Geoff and Karen Burns who want very much to adopt a child. The Police Chief is called in to aid in the decision about what to do with the baby and to find out, if possible, the mother who left the child at St. Alban’s.
Russ Van Alstyne invites Clare to go along on his patrol of the town so that they can discuss the situation – a fortuitous occurrence, since the ride leads them to a quiet area by the lake where they discover the body of a woman in the shallow waters. In the quiet town of Millers Kill, it is easy to assume that the two shocking discoveries must be related.
Clare and Russ discuss openly the possibility of certain people being the woman’s killer. She is, indeed, the mother of the baby and her name is Katie McWhorter. This new information sets off a discussion of who might have killed her. The unknown father, of course, is suspect; or the Burns couple who desperately want a baby; or the father of Katie who was recently accused of molesting Katie and her sister.
The reader is treated to scenes of winter in the fictional town of Millers Kill, situated in upstate New York near the Adirondack Mountains bordering Vermont. It is obvious that the author is familiar with the area and its beautiful winters.
What sets this mystery apart is the fact that Clare and Russ, who is married by the way, feel an attraction for each other, even though their cultural backgrounds are highly different. They resist the temptation, but the reader is left wondering if, in one of the seven sequels, perhaps the couple might openly confess their feelings and move the story forward. Russ claims to be 43 years old, and Clare is in her mid-thirties.
The killer of Katie McWhorter is a surprise, but at least in his own eyes, he had good reason to kill her. The discovery is Clare’s which increases her value in Russ’ eyes.
The sequel which follows is called “A Fountain Filled with Blood,” which I will surely read, since the lives of Clare and Russ have piqued my curiosity, which you will realize also, if you treat yourself to this fun novel.
In The Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2002)