Book Review: The Clare Fergusson Series by Julia Spencer-Fleming

In the Bleak Midwinter; A Fountain Filled With Blood; Out of the Deep I Cry; and more books by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Reviewed by Rayelenn Sparks Casey
St. Edward’s, Lancaster

The Reverend Clare Fergusson is the central character in this group of seven (soon to be eight) absorbing novels in the mystery/suspense/crime genre.  Clare, an ex-Army helicopter pilot, has finished seminary and has recently been ordained; her first cure is St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Miller’s Kill, New York, in the Adirondacks.  Ah -- that makes it the Diocese of Albany, doesn’t it? -- and there is Clare, the first female priest of the parish, with the old guard of the church demanding leadership that they are sure they won’t find in her, the bishop persistently reminding her of her vow of obedience, and the congregation trying to be welcoming but remaining fairly wary.  (Sounding a bit familiar?) But in Clare’s forthright Army-trained manner, they may have got more than they bargained for in this kind but impetuous new rector.

Clare soon gets to know the key people in the small town (always a good move on the part of a new incumbent) and at first the Chief of Police, Russ Van Alstyne, hardly knows what to make of this “lady priest,” her blunt manner, and her infuriating habit of impulsively turning up on his beat and challenging him.  They first lock horns when The Rev’d Fergusson finds an abandoned baby on the steps of St. Albans. Russ, as his training and long experience have taught him, treads carefully as he works the case, especially because, soon after, a young woman in town is found murdered. But Clare, ever rushing in (feisty? foolhardy? fired-up for justice?) wants answers and has ideas of her own about how to get them.  The more questions she asks, the more Clare learns, as every priest does, of the suffering, the heartaches, the long-held angers, and the painful secrets that parishioners and townspeople carry in their hearts.     

Although their working relationship is often testy, throughout the series Clare and Russ work together to solve cases, as an astonishing number of crimes seem to beset this seemingly idyllic village.  Eventually they realize that their relationship is both friendship and attraction; in book after book, Clare (the single female priest) and Russ (the married police chief) struggle to do what is right and suffer the assumptions of the ever-observant parishioners.

The titles of the books will roll familiarly off your tongue, as every one is a line from The Hymnal.  Hum these hymn-snippets as you search out the books online or in your favorite bookstore: In the Bleak Midwinter; A Fountain Filled With Blood; Out of the Deep I Cry; To Darkness and to Death; All Mortal Flesh; I Shall Not Want; One Was A Soldier; and the eighth book, to be released in November, Through the Evil Days. 

Those who are already fans of crime fiction will leap right into the books, doubly enjoyable because of the richness of Episcopal life that enlivens every chapter.  But to you who have never taken to the crime genre, give these a try; they are always intriguing and often funny, and in their context, they quietly address issues important to us Episcopalians -- spirituality and prayer, community, suffering, the nature of evil, maintaining faith in adversity, the role of women in the church -- as well as the engagement of Christians in social issues: environmental concerns, homosexuality and homophobia, health/mental health care for returning veterans, immigration, and war.

Spencer-Fleming creates believable characters and skillfully turns the lens on their inner conflicts.  The prose is intelligent and elevated, the plots complicated and elegant, and the ethical issues decidedly thorny. The descriptions of church life are all-so-recognizable (picture Clare quietly donning her vestments to read the evening service of Compline in an empty church lit with candles, or navigating a particularly contentious vestry meeting, or inviting her parishioners “in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent,” her voice echoing “off the stone walls of the church and [being] swallowed up in corners left dark by the antiquated lighting system and the heavy, gray day outside.”

An interviewer for Publishers Weekly once asked Julia Spencer-Fleming: “What is it about the Episcopal Church that seems to lend itself so readily to mystery authors?” Her answer was thoughtful: “I think in part because ours is a church tradition that honors human reason. The three pillars of the Episcopal Church are scripture, tradition and reason and that leaves an enormous amount of leeway for people to make personal moral choices within the church. So I think it gives a broader scope to characters who are faithful believers but who may be working out their belief in different ways.”

JS-F describes her series as “novels of faith and murder for readers of literary suspense.”  They have garnered a staggering number of awards and have a following all over the world.  Perhaps you might acquire them, and if you don’t have time now, save them for summer reading – or more perhaps more accurately – for reading in the Long Green Season!