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.
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.