Book review: In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming

In the Bleak Midwinter
by Julia Spencer-Fleming
St Martin’s 2002
Clare Fergusson #1

The words of the famous carol that form the title of this novel also provide the backdrop for events in the town of Miller’s Kill, New York – in the far north-east of the United States. A kill, I learnt, is a local name for a creek or shallow river in the farmlands and mountains of the Adirondacks.

This début novel, which won six prestigious awards on first publication, introduces the characters of Russ Van Alstyne, the town’s longstanding police chief, and new resident Clare Fergusson, an ex-Army helicopter pilot turned Episcopal priest. The two meet when a newborn baby is found abandoned on the steps of Clare’s church, with instructions that he is given for adoption to a couple who worship there regularly. Russ (whose wife is conveniently absent for the whole book) and Clare hit it off; he takes her out on patrol the next evening so she can get to know the town, but when they drive up the snowy paths to the kill, they stumble across the body of a young woman. A woman, it turns out, who has recently given birth.

In the Bleak Midwinter is a novel that draws in the reader, at first by both the vivid characterisation of Russ and Clare as well as by the atmospheric descriptions of the region; but later by the deepening plot, as the case becomes darker and more complex. The pacing is superb, as the confident (then first-time) author avoids the common trap of introducing a cardboard cast and having each one suspected then eliminated as the criminal. Even the over-used device of the “woman in peril” is given a freshly credible treatment.

In addition, though, the author represents unusually well the emotional cost of crimes. She is not afraid to examine the grief of loved ones or the emotions of those desperate to have a child at any cost. Nor is she afraid to demonstrate how Clare provides succour and comfort to the bereaved or the (wrongfully?) accused. Taken together with the unspoken sexual tension between Russ and Clare, both tough yet decent people who have weathered some of life’s less fair blows, this novel is an excellent achievement. I shall certainly be reading more in the series to see what happens in Miller’s Kill next, and where the relationship between Russ and Clare might go.

I purchased this book (mass market paperback edition). I was encouraged to try it by Keishon, whose post here describes her love for the series as well as listing the books in reading order (the author’s website is disabled currently).

Read other reviews of In the Bleak Midwinter at: Murder by Type, Kittling: Books, Dear Author (the reviewer also inspired by Keishon to read this book), S. Krishna’s books and Mervi’s book reviews.

Lesa’s book critiques: Julia Spencer-Fleming at the Poisoned Pen.

Wikipedia on the fascinating history, geography and culture of New York state.