Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Julia Spencer-Fleming - In the Bleak Midwinter

Clare Fergusson, St. Alban's new priest, fits like a square peg in the conservative Episcopal parish at Millers Kill, New York. She is not just a "lady," she's a tough ex-Army chopper pilot and nobody's fool. Then a newborn infant left at the church door brings her together with the town's Police Chief, Russ Van Alstyne, who's also ex-Army and a cynical good shepherd for the stray sheep of his hometown. Their search for the baby's mother quickly leads them into the secrets that shadow Millers Kill like the ever-present Adirondacks. What they discover is a world of trouble, an attraction to each other--and murder...

Comment: In 2016 I gifted this book to a friend and she really liked it. I had planned on getting one for myself but time went by and only now I managed to add it to my monthly list, but I was quite eager, considering my friend's opinion.

This is the first book in the series featuring the odd partners reverend Clare Ferguson and the chief of police Russ Van Alstyne, in a small town where it all seems to be one way, until a murder starts unveiling secrets. Reverend Clare is new at St Albans and she knows some people might frown at a female priest but Clare knows she has been Called and she believes her military background can help her assert her position. Her mission starts right away, for the night before she starts, she finds an abandoned baby and in the hospital she meets the chief of police, also a military man, who helps her with some technicalities. However, the baby had been left with a note and that starts up a whole new problem, especially since the day after, the baby's young mother is found dead. As the investigation goes further, Clare is eager to help everyone, even if that means spending time with a man she grows to respect and like, and the feeling seems reciprocal, but he is married....

I have not read anything about the future installments, not even the blurbs, meaning I don't know how things will develop but my first impressions on this title make me think this was thought to be a suspense series first, and the inspirational content and the romance hints a secondary element. It seems this might happen throughout the other books too, perhaps with more intensity on this or that, depending on the plot.

I liked this story enough, it was certainly fascinating to read and even more so because of the female protagonist. It's not that common that we have female priests as main characters and this was a good story to learn a little on the subject, although I assume Clare was pretty unconventional anyway. I think the inspirational/religious aspect was a bit detailed in one or two situations, mostly related to expectations those who hired Clare had at first, but it was both good and less good the information on the Church and the "rules" so to speak weren't too obvious. I mean, I liked we aren't always forced to see this as a "better" option, religion wise, but for such a novelty, I kind of wanted more on Clare's journey to become a reverend.

In fact, the religious parts were interesting to me, because they are so different from those I'm familiar with, being Catholic. But religious details aside, what made me more interested was the fact Clare was hired. How interesting, it's very different from Catholic priests, who are, if I got that right, nominated, chosen by the bishops or something similar. Meaning, it doesn't feel like reverends like Clare should be that much more conscious about people/attendants of the church, who might have a word on their "job". Clearly, though, the author has included some political hints here, I think. Some characters say this or that which can be pertinent to how a real person in a certain position might say/think but I must confess I would have preferred this part to not be that obvious and in one or two scenes what was expressed left me a little annoyed.

Back to the fictional part of the story, the murder was clever enough to make one think and the author spread the clues well enough that the investigation process felt realistic. However, I also think Clare, since she is not a police officer, got too much information because she was a reverend and no matter how good a relationship with chief Van Alstyne, did she really have to be in people's business that much, especially when they didn't seek her out at church? Some readers said she was too nosy, got herself into situations she had no business getting into and this even led her to make some silly choices, which out her in danger. 
I suppose making the heroine a reverend and not a law agent had its perks, but there's also the other side, Clare often acted in an inconvenient matter, even if her heart is in the right place.

Then we have the situation of the mutual attraction between her and chief Van Alstyne. Nothing happens, as one would expect of two good citizens and with a string moral compass, but after what my friend say, I kind of imagined something more obvious when it came to pining. I think this actually rather subtle, perhaps to escalate (emotionally I mean) in the next books. 
Both have military background, so I can imagine them having the structure to hold on to "what is right" but the author has also made it easy to notice how well matched they can be. I also found it interesting that the chief mentions his wife Linda several times but she's never on the page, he never interacted with her on the page. Perhaps a hint on where this might go? Here I go making films...

When the murder is explained and the culprit unveiled, of course everything made sense despite the red herrings throughout the book. I actually would have preferred another choice, I think that a different murderer would have had a better effect on the plot, but I can see why the author planned things this way instead.

All considered, there were enough positive aspects to make me want to see what happens next, to see if what I liked less is an intricate part of the series or just a factor of this title, but I surely hope the situations on the second book offer a more solid structure when it comes to plot.
Grade: 7/10

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