Thursday, February 2, 2017

Devouring Julia Spencer-Fleming: two books in two days

Having recently discovered Julia Spencer-Fleming, I'm in trouble again. Glued to her fascinating stories for the past couple of days, I've been unable to drag myself away to other duties.

After reading In the Bleak Midwinter, I jumped over the next two and picked up the fourth. Russ Van Alstyne and Claire Fergusson are so compelling that I'm willing to suspend my disbelief that the Episcopalian minister, before her belated religious calling, had a military background. Just like the middle-aged, married police chief.

Spencer-Fleming's crime novels are plotted with the intricacy of small-town social relationships. That and the zany humour, social realism, and fresh and original turns of phrase make these books irresistible.

Some samples from To Darkness and to Death: The twice imprisoned woman speaks "to her latest captor in the jolly...tones she used to cajole sulky activists trapped in overlong meetings."

Millers Kill, New York, in the Adirondaks, is a dry town. It's atmosphere is expressed in this simple sentence: "If you wanted to drink in a place where the bartender didn't look at you funny for ordering a martini, well, Saratoga was forty minutes and a whole cultural time zone away."

Sitting beside his wife at a town banquet, Russ sees Clare in evening dress for the first time, and imagines running his hands "over her pale white shoulder and down..." Instead, he guiltily spears "a large and bitter piece of endive into his mouth" and crunches it. Ignoring the "nonentical Mrs. Corlew" and the others at the table, Russ observes the shifting emotions of his unexpected lady love. As he does so, his own face resembles "one of the great stone faces of Easter Island."

In sharp contrast to the banquet scene, this bleak scene of the decrepit sawmill evokes the dark and violent emotions of its owner. Three picnic tables sit near "the featureless mill wall, scoured flat by cold and darkness," on a lot littered with cigarette butts that resemble "spent casings."

In the end, the most unexpected character turns out to be the one with the strength and mercy to help the deeply flawed Randy. This other man is Randy's polar opposite -- so much so that Randy asks why he's helping, and is told simply that "You, me, we're all human beings. We have to do right by each other."

When she and Russ finally admit to their unexpected and inconvenient love for one another, Claire comments that "the nature of His gifts" is "to see what you do with them." Later, when all the crimes are solved and peace returns to the village, Russ ponders that "we are all related. If not by blood, then by bonds we don't even realize. Until they're gone."

Along with the hymns quoted in each of her titles, such scenes give a comforting sense of balance in the midst of the threats, hatred, jealousy, and violence that Ms. Spencer-Fleming's intricate plots require. How strangely fiction works, and how peculiar that readers feel satisfied by reading such well-constructed mysteries.

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