Sunday, April 14, 2013

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER by Julia Spencer-Fleming

If you like exciting endings, you should like Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In the Bleak Midwinter. 

The book has two hair-raising endings. One is about a fifty-page episode in which someone tries to gun down the heroine in a raging snowstorm. The other is a hostage taking which occurs in midwinter on a rotting river bridge.

It is the Christmas season. The Rev. Clare Fergusson is in the first two weeks of her ministry at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Millers Kill, New York.

On the way out of a welcoming party at the church, she finds an abandoned baby. Then later, someone kills the baby’s young mother. And after that someone kills the mother’s father.

Clare teams up with Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne to solve the crime. Fortuitously, every time Russ goes to do something important in the case, Clare seems to get to ride alone.

This is an exquisitely well-plotted and well-written book. Most of the suspects come from among Clare’s congregation. Clare’s impulsive caring puts her in situations that stretch her ministerial ethics. And she and the married Russ Van Alstyne seem to be falling in love.

In other words, there is a little bit of everything in this book. The title (which comes from a hymn) is brilliant.

If there is a weakness here, I found the book over-plotted. But the book had one great strength for me. 

In the Bleak Midwinter is the most realistic portrayal I have ever read of the problems of the minister detective.

As most of you know, I am a retired seminary-trained ordained minister. Most of the minister-nun-priest mysteries I’ve read don’t seem true to life. And I’ve read many over the years (i.e. Rabbi Small, Father Brown, Brother Cadfael, Sister Mary Helen, a city-bound Presbyterian minister whose name I don’t remember now, and a whole bunch more).

I struggled with this story because it was so true to life. Clare impulsively involved herself in areas of people’s lives that put her at great ethical risk. Ministers sometimes do that. They take chances for what they think is a higher good. And sometimes they are wrong.

Almost needless to say, I was more greatly bothered than I can tell you as I watched Clare and Russ grow closer.

For me, this book was a hard read, but I liked it nonetheless. I highly recommend it.

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