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Posts Tagged ‘Clare Fergusson’

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A cop and a priest walk into a crime scene.

It’s a feature of several mystery series I love: Grantchester, the excellent ITV drama based on James Runcie’s novels about Sidney Chambers and Inspector Geordie Keating. Inspector Lewis, the BBC series in which Lewis and his sergeant, Hathaway (who trained for the priesthood) solve mysteries in my beloved Oxford.

And, most recently for me, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries set in Millers Kill, New York, starring police chief Russ Van Alstyne and the Reverend Clare Fergusson.

I picked up the first book at my library right after New Year’s and was captivated by Russ and Clare’s initial adventure, in which they rescue an abandoned baby and solve a murder case. As you can see from my reading roundups, I’ve blazed through the entire series over the past two months.

I love a good mystery series, though I’m not much for serious gore. Give me an engaging, thoughtful protagonist (or two) with a strong sense of justice, an interesting setting (and preferably a standout supporting cast), twisty and compelling mystery plots, and I’m satisfied.

In this series, all those elements are intertwined with Russ and Clare’s complicated relationship. They make a good team and they quickly become friends, bonding over the cases they solve together and their respective experiences in the U.S. military. Before long, they find themselves wrestling with a deeper attraction. The problem: Russ is married, and Clare’s chosen vocation gives her extra incentive to deal honestly with her feelings and take responsibility for her actions.

Spencer-Fleming writes a solid mystery plot: I’ve been amazed at the way she weaves in local Adirondack history, the tangled web of relationships present in any small town, and questions of justice. Clare’s clear-cut sense of right and wrong is often troubled by the cases she investigates, while Russ’ long experience as a policeman has left him more world-weary but no less dedicated.

I’ve also been repeatedly astonished by the rendering of Russ and Clare’s relationship. These are two people trying to do the right thing, while acknowledging that their feelings for one another could wreak havoc on their lives and their town. It feels blazingly honest and compassionate.

Millers Kill, as the characters frequently note, is a small town, and I’ve grown to love many of the supporting characters: deputy police chief Lyle and veteran dispatcher Harlene; the junior officers, especially Kevin Flynn and Hadley Knox; the members of Clare’s vestry board and her church; and others who walk in and out of the pages regularly. They all strike me as utterly human, and most of them are people I’d like to know in real life.

Writing honestly and well about faith is hard to do. I speak from my experience on this blog and elsewhere, but I’ve never tried my hand at it in fiction. Spencer-Fleming gives us glimpses of Clare’s hard-won, gritty faith, which informs every case she works on and often goes against the grain of church politics and the vestry’s expectations. I wrote about an early scene involving prayer and a subsequent one on forgiveness, but there’s at least one similar nugget in every book: a few clear-eyed lines about the struggle to be a faithful person in this mixed-up, often heartbreaking world.

During a crisis moment in I Shall Not Want, the sixth book, Russ remembers asking Clare, “So, how do you pray?” He recalls her thoughtful expression, and her answer: Say what you believe. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love. 

I’ve finished the series for now (though I hope there are more books to come), and I can say with certainty: I love these characters, and I’m thankful for them. And for writers like Spencer-Fleming who bring us stories like these.

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“I was going to ask if you believe praying can really help at a time like this.”

Clare folded her hands together and pressed them to her lips. She paused. […]

“I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending His spirit, giving us strength, and peace, and insight. I don’t think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen.”

Harlene frowned. “In other words, sometimes, the answer is no?”

“No. Sometimes the answer is ‘This is life, in all its variety. Make your way through it with grace, and never forget that I love you.’ ”

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter

I don’t usually expect to find theology in mystery novels. Though perhaps I should have seen it coming in this book, the first in a series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson (flawed but faithful, like all the best human beings I know). I enjoyed the book – a solid mystery set in upstate New York, in which new-to-town Clare solves a murder case alongside longtime chief of police Russ Van Alstyne. But I found this exchange, between Clare and police dispatcher Harlene, particularly moving and deeply human.

I don’t pretend to know what prayer does, or exactly how it works. The older I get, the less sure I am of what God is up to in this world, or how the presence of the divine intersects with our lives. But Clare’s final statement to Harlene rings true to me: when we are faced with life in all its variety, all we can do is try to make our way through it with grace. In spite of the darkness, I still believe this too: we are not alone, but deeply, wholly loved.

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