Background: When I'm not reading children's and young adult titles, my reading genre of choice is mysteries. For several years I've been a fan of Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. Enough so that I signed up for the author's email list, and jumped at the chance when she offered ARCs of the series' sixth title: I Shall Not Want.
Although this is a mystery series about a small-town police chief, the real tension comes not from crime scene investigations, but from the relationship between the police chief and a local minister. The series begins with In the Bleak Midwinter, in which Clare first moves to the snowy Adirondack town of Millers Kill, and falls head over heels in love with the married police chief, Russ. Clare is an Episcopal priest, and as such is permitted to marry, but her church, and her own conscience, frown on affairs with married men. Thus a huge theme for the first book, and the books that follow, involves the unrequited passion felt between the two main characters.
I am a solid fan of the unrequited passion storyline, when it's done convincingly. And Julia Spencer-Fleming is very good what she does. The reader positively aches for Russ and Clare, two kindred spirits who eventually can't even spend time together as friends, because of the risks of gossip. The problem with unrequited passion storylines in a continuing series, however, is that in order for the series to progress, you have to eventually allow the couple to be together. And, usually, that's the beginning of the end for the dramatic tension in the series. (For some pop cultural examples, Grey's Anatomy flagged once Meredith and Derek were finally together, and they had to break them up again. And the old television show Scarecrow and Mrs. King couldn't survive once Mrs. King became Mrs. Scarecrow.) This puts the reader (and I presume the writer) in a bit of a bind. We love these characters. We want to see them happy. And yet, once they come together, we see that as the happily ever after (Elizabeth and Darcy, for example) and we don't really need to read about them anymore. And that's where Julia Spencer-Fleming is with Russ and Clare - at the precipice.
I highly recommend this series, as long as you start at the beginning. These are darkly atmospheric tales, set in a rural location with harsh weather and strong-willed characters. The books are mysteries, but they are also in-depth character analyses, and provide a sharp look at religion and moral values. They are leavened with humor, too, through the voices of the characters.
The review that follows will contain spoilers for the series as a whole, especially book 5. So stop here if you haven't read All Mortal Flesh. And if you are new to the series, go get yourself a copy of In the Bleak Midwinter. You won't be disappointed.
Review: As this sixth installment of the Fergusson/Van Alstyne series begins, tragic heroes Russ and Clare can theoretically be together, because of Russ's wife's death in book five. Russ, however, is consumed by guilt over the fact that had he been with his wife, instead of with Clare, his wife wouldn't have died. His guilt is compounded by the fact that he wants to be able to be with Clare openly, but feels like his potential happiness is at the expense of his dead wife. Clare, meanwhile, is a mess, because Russ has been pushing her away, at a time when she is coping with her own guilt regarding the events of All Mortal Flesh.
But I Shall Not Want Doesn't start with Russ and Clare at all. Instead, the book introduces a new character and thrusts her into compelling action from the very first page. How is this for an opening line:
"When she saw the glint of the revolver barrel through the broken glass of the window, Hadley Knox thought, I'm going to die for sixteen bucks an hour."
Hadley turns out to be a new cop on the local police force, a struggling single mother who isn't sure whether or not being a cop is the best thing, but is in it for the benefits. Hadley's outsider perspective freshens the series a bit, and allows the reader to see things about Russ and Clare that might be hidden from the heroes themselves. The perspective of the book shifts seamlessly between these three primary protagonists (with occasional digressions). For example, here is Hadley's first meeting with Clare:
"I'm Clare Fergusson." She moved close enough for Hadley to make out her face, cheekbones, chin, and nose, all points and angles. "I'm the rector here at St. Albans." She smiled a welcome, but there was a bone-deep sadness about her that the smile couldn't dissipate. (page 15, ARC)
Hadley's opening scene is filled with drama and tension, and ends with a major character in jeopardy, possibly dead. The next chapter begins six months previously, as the reader learns of the events that brought the characters to that pivotal scene. Talk about keeping the reader turning the pages! I stayed up until 2:00 am reading this book, because I had to know what happened.
The plot of I Shall Not Want involves illegal Mexican immigrants (working at local farms), a caring nun, racist rednecks, and suspicious activities by newcomers to the area. These various plot elements end up pulling Russ and Clare together, in spite of themselves, as each works to help people in trouble. Although the plot is suspenseful, I found myself flagging many passages along the way that were well-written, or illuminating, or humorous (or all three). For example:
Sister Lucille patted her hand. "Not meaning to be nosy. It's just that I've found one of the great benefits of the celibate life is fearlessness. Especially for women. You can see what needs to be done and do it, without fear of how it's going to affect your family or your reputation." Where she had been patting she squeezed, hard. "Don't let anyone convince you it's a flaw. We need more fearless women following Christ, not less." (page 25, ARC)
I Shall Not Want also has a fun nod towards adult readers of children's books. One of the cops mentions the Weasley twins (in context of a younger cop being a red-head), and an older cop doesn't know what he's talking about. Here's the exchange:
"Harry Potter?" Kevin said. "Everybody's heard of that."
"MacAuley made a face. "Kids' books."
"I like 'em." McCrea twisted a faucet on. "Last one came out, I read it before my son did."
"Grown-ups reading kids' books," MacAuley said with disgust. "It's no wonder we're importin' men from Mexico to do our work for us. We're all getting too dumb to know one end of a hammer from the other." (page 43-44, ARC)
And we're back on track to the plot. Honestly, I don't know how Julia Spencer-Fleming pulls it off. I'm reading as fast as I can to find out what happens, but I'm also happy to stop and read little insider passages about what it's like to be the rector of a small church, or about the police chief's steps to limit fraternization among the police force (given the presence of a new female cop). And I'm smirking over witty internal monologue like:
"Her twenty-year old refrigerator was almost buried beneath photos, clippings, comics, and brochures. He figured the whole appliance was held together by magnetic force at this point." (page 124, ARC).
"... Neil said. "He didn't understand when she told him to clear off, 'cause he don't speak no English."
Kevin thought Neil wasn't doing so hot in that department himself." (page 200, ARC).
Funny, profound, intriguing, moving. This book has it all. The addition of Hadley as a new character, and the inclusion of another young cop's viewpoint, keep this sixth book fresh. The reader continues to care what happens with Russ and Clare, but also gets a bit of a break from the intensity of their emotions. And the way that the plot strands come together is satisfying, without being obvious.
Highly recommended for fans of the series. New readers should start at the beginning. Clare, Russ, and the rest of the Millers Kill team are well worth spending time with.
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur
Publication Date: June 10, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author. All quotes are from the advance copy, and may not reflect the final printed book.
Other Blog Reviews: The Mystery Gazette, Citadel of Stars
Author Interviews: Poe's Deadly Daughters
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.