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clare russ book stack julia spencer fleming mysteries

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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flavia de luce series books mysteries

I love a good series, as you know – especially a mystery series. (I’m also fond of young adult trilogies and other series, such as Miss Read’s tales of life in Fairacre, but the mysteries are getting a lot of attention from me right now.)

I stumble onto the occasional series at the outset, like the Amory Ames mystery series by Ashley Weaver, whose first book I devoured and then reviewed on Great New Books this spring. The sequel came out this fall, and I eagerly dove into the second installment of Amory’s adventures. (I’m hoping there will be a third!)

The only problem with this method: it’s a long wait between books.

But more often than not, I discover a series when there are already a few books out: Maisie Dobbs, Flavia de Luce (see above), Harry Potter, Chet and Bernie. It’s always a true pleasure to dive in and read multiple books in a row featuring characters I love – especially if the characters and plots grow deeper and more complex over time. But then, of course, I have to wait for the next book to come out.

My friend Jaclyn says she can only read one mystery series at a time, and my friend Jessica says she’d rather wait until all the books in a trilogy (or sometimes, a longer series) are published, instead of torturing herself by reading one or two at a time. But I tend not to be able to wait.

Of course, if the series is already complete – like Agatha Christie’s Tommy & Tuppence adventures or Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries – I can devour them all at once, with impunity. But with series that are still being written, I possess a shocking lack of restraint.

My tendency is to gobble up whatever’s available, even if it means I read five or six books in a row and then have to wait months (or a year!) for the next book in a series. I can’t say it’s a perfect strategy, exactly, but I don’t seem to be able to help myself.

Do you binge read? Savor a series one book at a time? Or employ another reading strategy altogether?

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Although I am an Anglophile, a bibliophile and a fan of young adult literature, I spent several years as a Harry Potter skeptic. I first heard about the books when a family friend, a school superintendent, read the early ones and praised them. But I wasn’t sure I’d really like them – wizards? Spells? Some kind of game played on brooms? Sounded a bit too fantastical for me.

During my first semester in Oxford, several friends were thrilled to tour Christ Church because its dining hall serves as the Great Hall in the Harry Potter films. Privately, I scoffed at their excitement. Didn’t they love this elegant, historic building for its own sake? (Yes, I know. I couldn’t stand me, either.)

Finally, Valerie convinced me to give Philosopher’s Stone a chance. “Just try it,” she begged, pushing it across her coffee table on a hot August afternoon. “If you hate it, I swear I’ll leave you alone. But if you love it, come back and you can borrow the rest of the series.”

harry potter series books british editions

Two days later I was back on her doorstep, holding out the book I’d just finished and begging to borrow the next one. I finished Prisoner of Azkaban the following week, sitting at Val’s kitchen table, and as soon as I read the last page, I leaped up and pounded down the hall to her bedroom, to squeal and exclaim and discuss. I had enjoyed the first two books, but the last 80 or so pages of the third one break the plot wide open, forcing readers to reexamine many things they thought they knew. Suddenly, this story was  bigger and deeper – and darker – than I could previously have imagined. (Val, bless her, never so much as said “I told you so.”)

Recently, I spent a couple of weeks immersed in what I think is my sixth reread of the series. And I love it more than ever.

It’s fascinating to reread a series from the beginning after I know the end (though it was fun to wait with bated breath for the sixth and seventh books, with millions of other fans). I can glimpse Rowling’s grand design from the first pages of Philosopher’s Stone, and I know to look for the signs and hints she weaves into the buildup of Harry’s story. I notice the repetition of certain symbols, key phrases, even verbs. These books are full of action, and the verbs “seized,” “bellowed,” “roared,” “dashed,” get quite a workout.

I love tracing the familiar, twisting path from number four, Privet Drive, to Hogwarts and back again, learning about the wizarding world alongside a wide-eyed Harry, taking in the delights of Diagon Alley and meeting the Hogwarts students, staff and ghosts. I love the flashes of humor that pop up regularly (often in the form of Fred and George, whom I adore). From Zonko’s to Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes to various clever spells, it’s obvious Rowling had so much fun creating this magical world. And Dumbledore had it right: the heart of the series, the great secret that gives the story its power, is love.

Harry has grown up mostly ignored by the Dursleys, but his mother’s love and protection thrums through his veins in his very blood. Somehow, his years with his relatives haven’t erased his compassion: he is kind, loyal and honorable, although he has a temper and a stubborn independent streak (he is no angel, but rather endearingly human). His parents’ love saved his life, and his love for his friends saves more than one life throughout the series, as the stakes rise higher and higher, and more people are forced to risk their necks for those they care about.

I love the Order of the Phoenix, how these wizards from varying backgrounds band together to fight against Lord Voldemort, though for all they know, it might be a losing battle. I love how the Weasleys take Harry in as another son, how the members of the DA stand up for him and for each other, how Ron and Hermione stay with him until the very end. I love how the story keeps growing in depth and scope, until it becomes truly epic, a battle for the very future of the world we all hold dear.

Every once in a while, I get a hankering to return to Hogwarts, to spend a week or two in this world filled with magic (of various kinds). The best rereading combines the comfort of familiarity with new moments of insight each time, and Harry’s story provides both, in ample measure.

Do you reread favorite books or series? Have you read the Harry Potter books?

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