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.

11 thoughts on “Book review: In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming

  1. Maxine – Isn’t this a fine depiction of the after-effects of a crime? I richly enjoyed the characters, the setting (which I’m familiar with from having been in the area) and the story. I am very glad you liked the novel as much as you did, too. I think the thing that worked best for me was that Spencer-Fleming doesn’t go for the easy answers. She presents real-life, authentic characters and challenges.
    *Excuse me while I don my linguist’s hat* The word kill‘s interesting; it’s the Dutch word for stream and is a memory of the years when the Dutch colonised New York. *Now removing hat*

    • Fascinating, Margot, thank you. No doubt from the time when New York, a Dutch colony, was called New Amsterdam, before the British got it and renamed it!

      I agree that the author does not go in for the easy answers – an attractive book in many ways.

  2. Hey Maxine, excellent review. So glad you enjoyed In the Bleak MidWinter. Usually Clare is a deal breaker for some readers who judge her actions as not being very smart. But I disagree and like her character a lot. The one thing that I love about this writer is her discussion of the most relevant issues of today and she presents them in a fair and balanced way. I haven’t read her last one yet but so far this author has been consistent.

  3. Interesting review. I like the characters and the writing, but the religious aspects throw up barriers for me. My mind can’t go there, so I sort of read around them and focus on plot developments.

    • The religious element was what put me off reading it for so long, Kathy, but there was not much religion in this book, I was pleased to say. I hope she continues to treat it with a light touch as the series progresses.

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