Book review: A Fountain Filled With Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming

A Fountain Filled With Blood
by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Minotaur/St Martin’s, 2003
Clare Fergusson #2

The quotation that forms the title of this book is from a hymn by William Cowper, referring to the washing away of sins. The small town of Millers Kill in the Adirondacks (New York state) seems to be a focus for hate crimes against gay men. In the first two described cases, the victims are attacked and viciously beaten by thugs, but are not robbed. The third case seems different, so police chief Russ van Alstyne is unsure whether it is related.

Reverend Clare Fergusson is improbably concerned in all three cases from the outset: she is sitting next to the partner of the first victim when he is informed of the incident by Russ; she’s about to perform the marriage ceremony of the sister of the second victim; and she discovers the body of the third while out walking the dogs that belonged to the first victim. Despite the attractiveness of Clare’s personality and the fluent writing style of the novel, I almost stopped reading it at this point because of these impossible coincidences.

However, I am glad I read on, because the book changes direction. Clare and Russ clash about Russ’s determination to keep secret the sexual orientation of the victims – Clare preaches tolerance and believes that others potentially at risk should be warned to take care. Insatiably curious, Clare manages to inveigle herself into various situations where she encounters possible suspects and motivations for the crimes, which may be connected to a huge spa resort being built just outside the town, and a controversy over the associated environmental impact statement. She and Russ, therefore, constantly bump into each other as their separate investigations add pieces to form a complete picture.

Both Russ and Clare are vivid characters who deal with their attraction to each other in a moral yet adult way – she is a celibate priest, he is married. It becomes clearer in this book, the second in the series, how compatible they are, not least in a dangerous mission near the end involving a helicopter. It’s very hard to write a genuinely thrilling, original action sequence; here the author has done it again after her success in this regard in her first novel. The easily guessable crime-plot, with its somewhat boilerplate suspects, is in some ways secondary – though it is well-constructed, and it provides an excuse for a great set-piece in which Clare wangles an invitation to a pre-wedding party, gets drunk, and finds herself trapped in an embarrassing situation.

Julia Spencer-Fleming writes with a light but mature touch, depicting very well small-town characters, concerns, tensions and politics. Based on the evidence of her first two books, this series looks set to be near the top of those being written in the USA today, not least for the excellent handling of the ‘will-they-won’t-they?’ relationship of Russ and Clare – a treatment that could serve as a model for other authors who attempt to do the same, but less successfully.

I purchased this book.

Other reviews of A Fountain Filled With Blood: Bookreporter, Kirkus reviews, Kittling:Books, Reviewing the Evidence (Barbara Franchi) and January Magazine (Sarah Weinman).

My review of In The Bleak Midwinter, the first book in the series.

Author’s website (now functioning!) – includes the series in reading order, news, excerpts and offers.

16 thoughts on “Book review: A Fountain Filled With Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming

  1. Bearing in mind she’s a Reverend, and that it sounds like there are some currently controversial social/religious topics utilised in the narrative, how does the author handle the religious beliefs and practices of her main character? What denomination of Reverend is she?

    • She’s an Episcopalian (Anglican). The author handles these well in various ways, eg showing some of the work she does in the church (religious and administrative), as well as in the broader society. Another example is her attitude to the people she meets in the course of the investigation and the way she cares for the victims. She’s a very moral character, but the author does not present her with a heavy hand or make her into a preachy person. It’s quite an achievement.

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  3. Maxine – I too like Clare Fergusson very very much as a character. She’s got some depths to her and she’s an interesting person too. I couldn’t agree more that Spencer-Fleming does a highly effective job of depicting her relationship with Van Aldyn. It’s realistic and it doesn’t overshadow the story or get melodramatic. As you say, that’s an accomplishment! I’m glad you liked this one.

  4. I’ve not heard of her but will keep an eye out for the author. It sounds interesting and I like the idea of the reverend principal character.

  5. I assumed I’d be allergic to books about a reverend, but I was wrong! Perhaps the fact that she was previously a helicopter pilot in the US military helps.

  6. I was a bit half-hearted about the first one; I think it was the unlikely coincidences (as you note), and also that someone trained to survive in the military was so dense about happily wandering naively off into danger. That cliche really annoys me about woman heroines!

    • Me too, but at least this one does not need rescuing by some man (in either of the first two books, at least) which is a big plus.

  7. Interesting choice of title, as this hymn, which goes:
    “There is a fountain filled with blood
    Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
    And sinners, plunged beneath the flood
    Lose all their guilty stains”
    is frowned upon by some Christians today, lauded by others. A new version has been written, with entirely different words. Some congregations use the new, some the old.

  8. Given my penchant for religion and crime fiction I should not have lost touch with this author but somehow I did after reading and enjoying the first book. You have reminded me to pick her up again as I like the sound of this one – coincidences and all.

  9. I read one book in this series, found it quite pleasant to read on a weekend which called for peace and quiet. It was just right for the occasion. I also am a person who doesn’t like religious themes or characters, however, I didn’t find the book off-putting.

  10. I haven’t heard of this author before, but will definately put book #1 on my wishlist after reading your review of book #2.

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