Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Julia Spencer-Fleming: The Romance Reader’s Mystery Writer

In October 2006, when the hens at Squawk Radio were still busily squawking, Eloisa James reviewed All Mortal Flesh, the fifth book in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series by Julia Spencer-Fleming. EJ’s recommendation, plus Spencer-Fleming’s self-identification as a romance fan, sent me looking for the books. I picked up the first book to check it out and was hooked by the title, In the Bleak Midwinter (It alluded to a poem by Christina Rossetti, one of my favorite poets) and a first line that has to be among the best ever: “It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.” Within a matter of weeks, I had read all five books. I found in these books the same carefully plotted mysteries, rich details of place, integration of social issues, and focus on a developing relationship that had made Margaret Maron my favorite mystery writer.

I’ve been reading mysteries almost as long as I’ve been reading romance, perhaps longer if I include Nancy Drew in my history with the genre, and I still read a fair number of mysteries, mostly cozies, every year. Most of them offer a few hours of entertainment and then end up in a bag of books to pass on to a friend or to donate to the local library or hospice. Only those that I know I will read again find a home on my keeper shelves. And I don’t reread these books for the mystery plot. I reread them because the protagonists intrigue me, because who they are and the hows and whys of their lives are more compelling than the murder that is solved by book’s end.

In guest post with the Romance Vagabonds in 2008, around the time I Shall Not Want was released, Spencer-Fleming, said that when she began the series she knew certain things, and didn’t know others:

I knew I wanted to tell a love story about a brand-new female Episcopal priest and a married small-town chief of police. I knew I wanted it to be smart, and grown-up, and to ask questions like, “What do we sacrifice to honor our commitments?” and “What if finding your soul mate only leads to heartache?” I didn’t know if the ending would be happy or tragic. I didn’t know if I could balance the story of Russ and Clare, and the people of Millers Kill whose lives intersect with theirs, and the demands of a tightly-plotted mystery. I really didn’t know the central question over five--soon to be six--books was going to be: Will they or won’t they?
Her agent, she said, jokingly described book six as “mystery-women’s fiction-romance.” But it turns out, that description is not a jest but rather an accurate label not for a single book but for this genre-blending series that has become a favorite of many readers within the romance community. These books include a mystery, usually one that is tied to a timely and significant social issue; they also include stages in the journey of the protagonist who struggle with difficult questions and a love story with complications and sexual tension sufficient to please most romance readers.

In the Bleak Midwinter (2002)

Clare Fergusson, a former Army helicopter pilot, has recently arrived in Miller’s Kill, New York, as the new priest of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. She’s finding becoming the ideal priest far more difficult than she expected. Then, a newborn baby is left literally at the church door, and searching for the baby’s mother leads Clare into close contact with Russ Van Alstyne, the seasoned, attractive, married police chief of Miller’s Kill.

A Fountain Filled With Blood (2003)

Hate crimes and environmental concerns show that even small towns are not exempt from the problems that plague American life in the 21st century. Events make it impossible for Clare and Russ to avoid a growing emotional intimacy even as they determine to fight their growing attraction.

Out of the Deep I Cry (2004)

In an intricately woven plot that encompasses nine decades and everything from a leaky church roof to disappearing men, a free clinic, and the debate over whether vaccinations cause autism in children, this book shows Clare and Russ limiting themselves to public meetings in a fruitless effort to subvert the relationship that threatens their professional reputations and their self-identification as responsible, moral individuals.

To Darkness and to Death (2005)

In marked contrast to the sprawling plot of book, book 4 takes place in twenty-four hours. As Clare and Russ join the search for a missing young woman, they uncover a ruthlessness that involves blackmail and murder and touches local politics and environmental issues similar to those Spencer-Fleming has written about earlier. As the tension surrounding the mystery ratchets up, so does the tension between Clare and Russ.

All Mortal Flesh (2006)

This time murder strikes home. Russ’s wife, from whom he has been separated for a short time, is found dead in the family home—and not of natural causes. The whispers about the relationship between the police chief and the Episcopal priest become clear cries of accusation. Russ, tormented by grief and guilt, finds his investigation into the murder impeded by the state police who have been informed that the local police are involved in a cover up. Clare too falls under suspicion, and the church hierarchy further complicate the situation. There are twists aplenty in the story, but the focus in this book is clearly on Clare and Russ and the complexity of their relationship.

I Shall Not Want (2008)

The sixth installment, which covers the year following the death of Russ’s wife, finds him still consumed with guilt and regret. Clare, who is still dealing with conflicts with church leaders, has her own guilt to deal with, along with her fear that Russ can never fully return her feelings. A new character, Hadley Knox, who becomes a police officer in Miller’s Kill because it is the most lucrative job available to her. She brings a secondary romance into the story, and the deaths of Hispanic workers, illegal immigrants, and $10 million worth of marijuana add the social issues. The ending answers one important question and raises an equally important one.

After I Shall Not Want, readers were left--wondering, worried, and hungry for the next book—for nearly three years, from June 2008 to April 2011. To say fans were eager to learn what was going on with Clare and Russ is an understatement.

One Was a Soldier (2011)

The seventh book opens eighteen months after the close of I Shall Not Want with Clare back in Miller’s Kill after a tour of duty in Iraq, not as a chaplain but in her former role as a helicopter pilot.

Clare tried to speak with as many people as she could, even if it was as brief as a greeting and a “Lord, it sure is hot today, isn’t it?” Pouring drinks, swiping spills off the tables, bringing diners seconds she could feel her vocation reassembling around her, feel herself changing from a single recipient of God’s grace into a conduit, from someone clutching with tight fingers to someone giving away with both hands.

Clare is only one combat veteran in Miller’s Kill who is struggling with reentry into their former lives. She joins a therapy group that includes a former athlete who is now a double amputee, a member of Russ’s force whose uncontrollable anger is threatening his job, a doctor suffering memory loss, and a bookkeeper with marriage problems, but even within this group Clare is unable to admit that she has grown dependent on prescription drugs. When the bookkeeper is found shot to death and Russ writes it off as a suicide, Clare finds herself at odds with him. She and the other members of the support group launch a high-risk investigation into what they are convinced was murder. The investigation leads them far beyond Miller’s Kill.

One Was a Soldier is still a mystery, but the center of this novel is neither the mystery nor the continuing relationship of Clare and Russ, which is surprisingly more trouble free than I expected, but rather the psychology of combat veterans as they attempt to reintegrate with the family and community they left. The book ends with an announcement guaranteed to throw the lives of Clare and Russ into chaos and to leave readers panting for the next installment in the love story of these two characters.

Spencer-Fleming has said that the next book, Seven Whole Days, will definitely be in readers’ hands before the end of 2012. She’s also indicated that book 8 will feature more about the secondary relationship of Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn. I’m hoping to see the next book return to a greater focus on Clare and Russ. I will certainly be among those reading the book on release day, a pattern I expect to repeat for the additional three Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne books for which the author has contracted. But it’s not the mysteries that keep me a faithful reader; it’s my affection for and engagement with Clare, Russ, and Miller’s Kill that keep me reading the work of this romance readers’ mystery writer.

What genres other than romance do you read? How do you feel about blended genres? Have you read Julia Spencer-Fleming’s books?


Mary L Allen said...

What a brilliant summation of this favorite author's work! Thanks!

quantum said...

Janga, Its great to have such a broad perspective of an author's work, rather than a single title. Unfortunately the books are not available for me to download so I'm adding your review to my TBIF (to be investigated further) folder.

I don't confine my interest to one genre and dabble in almost everything. Fantasy, thrillers, mystery, historical, SciFi ....
A romantic theme enhances any genre though!

Mary, that picture looks rather like Stone Henge.I was walking around the stone circle recently! I have something similar as my desktop background.

MsHellion said...

Hmmm, I haven't heard of this person, but if she's shelved with mysteries, I wouldn't. I don't typically read mysteries if they're labeled that way. I'll read Da Vinci Code, which is a mystery of sorts; and lots of romances have mystery subplots, but I don't like mysteries by themselves.

I do like blended genres though. I'm a traditionalist, but for me, I'm also a hedonist, so I'm a More The Merrier type. If a plate of linguine alfredo is good, then a side of garlic cheese bread and caesar salad and tiramisu is even better. That's what blended genres are for me: a buffet! *LOL*

My preferred reading genres are: romance (primarily historicals or single-title contemporaries, some paranormals); women's fiction; regular fiction (like NEVER LET ME GO); historical fiction; and YA fiction. Occasionally I'll read "horror" (i.e. Laurell K. Hamilton, but never Stephen King.) I tend to read more women writers than men. It has to be an exceptional man writer for me to read it. I have read "blends" of almost all of these--and have enjoyed them.

In the end, it's character that matters most, over genre.

Janga said...

I'm glad you liked the post, Mary.It's one i really enjoyed writing.

Janga said...

Q, I'm always amazed when I learn about books you don't have access to. I hope JSF's books will be available soon. I think you will like them.

Janga said...

Hellie, I read far more women writers too. It's not surprising that this is true in romance, women's fiction, and cozy mysteries since those genres are largely written by women, but I also read more women writers in literary fiction and non-fiction. I think it's about even in poetry.

I bet you can fan JSF's first book at your local library. You should give her a try. My guess is that you'll be captivated by Clare and Russ too.