In October 2006, when the hens at Squawk Radio were still busily squawking, Eloisa James reviewed All Mortal Flesh, the fifth book in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series by Julia Spencer-Fleming. EJ’s recommendation, plus Spencer-Fleming’s self-identification as a romance fan, sent me looking for the books. I picked up the first book to check it out and was hooked by the title, In the Bleak Midwinter and a first line that has to be among the best ever: “It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.” Within a matter of weeks, I had read all five books. I found in these books the same carefully plotted mysteries, rich details of place, integration of social issues, and focus on a developing relationship that had made Margaret Maron my favorite mystery writer.
In a guest post with the Romance Vagabonds in 2008, around the time I Shall Not Want (book 6) was released, Spencer-Fleming said that when she began the series she knew certain things, and didn’t know others:
I knew I wanted to tell a love story about a brand-new female Episcopal priest and a married small-town chief of police. I knew I wanted it to be smart, and grown-up, and to ask questions like, “What do we sacrifice to honor our commitments?” and “What if finding your soul mate only leads to heartache?” I didn’t know if the ending would be happy or tragic. I didn’t know if I could balance the story of Russ and Clare, and the people of Millers Kill whose lives intersect with theirs, and the demands of a tightly-plotted mystery. I really didn’t know the central question over five—soon to be six—books was going to be: Will they or won’t they?
Series *SPOILERS* ahead, you've been warned...
Her agent, Spencer-Fleming said, jokingly described book six as “mystery-women’s fiction-romance.” But it turns out, that description is not a jest but rather an accurate label not for a single book but for this genre-blending series that has become a favorite of many readers within the romance community. These books include a mystery, usually one that is tied to a timely and significant social issue; they also include stages in Russ and Clare’s increasing intimacy, with sexual tension sufficient to please most romance readers.
In the Bleak Midwinter (2002), the first book in the series, won six major mystery awards, including the Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity. It introduces Clare Fergusson, a former Army helicopter pilot, who has recently arrived in Miller’s Kill, New York, to serve as the priest of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. She’s finding becoming the ideal priest far more difficult than she expected. Then, a newborn baby is left literally at the church door, and searching for the baby’s mother leads Clare into close contact with Russ Van Alstyne, the seasoned, attractive, married police chief. The two appear to have nothing in common: Russ is more than a decade older, he is an atheist, and he is a veteran who entered military service straight out of Miller’s Kill High School. Clare, a Virginian by birth, is holds college and seminary degrees, and her faith is deep and an integral part of who she is. Nevertheless, there is an unacknowledged attraction between them, but these are honorable people who are determined to behave honorably. They will be friends, valuing the connection that allows them to see each other as the flawed individual behind the uniform: “It’s a rare thing to have someone you can just be yourself with. . . . Your whole self.”
By the second book, A Fountain Filled with Blood (2003), in which hate crimes and environmental concerns show that even small towns are not exempt from the problems that plague American life in the 21st century, events make it impossible for Clare and Russ to deny that their feelings are more than friendship. Even as they determine to fight their growing attraction, they are unable to avoid one another. Russ admits to himself that “spotting her in the park, running into her at the IGA, or even driving past the rectory made his chest squeeze and the back of his throat ache.” Spencer-Fleming shows readers how deeply these two people care for one another, how unwaveringly they support one another even when they disagree, and how earnestly they struggle not to yield to temptation. On a lighter note, Clare enjoys a light flirtation with Hugh Parteger, an investment banker with a British accent and a gift for repartee, as Clare discovers when they meet.
Clare: “I like flowers as much as the next woman, but I can't tell a dahlia from a daisy.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Hugh: “You're obviously not into floral sects.”
Clare: “Mr. Parteger . . . I don't discuss what I do in my garden bed with anybody.”
Hugh: “It's nothing to be ashamed of. For most women, it's just a matter of finding the right tool.”
Clare: “Yes, but it’s such a tedious process, finding one that fits and works really well. Better just stick to hand weeding. Fewer complications that way.”
In Out of the Deep I Cry (2004), the third book which features an intricately woven plot that encompasses nine decades and everything from a leaky church roof to disappearing men, a free clinic, and the debate over whether vaccinations cause autism in children, Clare and Russ allow themselves to meet over lunch at a local diner each Wednesday “where God and everybody could see.” They are careful not to look at one another too long because even a look threatens the boundaries they are preserving. “Russ was looking at her. That was all, just his hand on her shoulder and his eyes. For a moment she wanted to lean into him and let him hold her. Instead, she propped a smile on her face.” Despite their precautions, people are talking about them, and Clare’s bishop is unhappy that Clare’s involvement in Russ’s cases is bringing unwelcome publicity to her and St. Alban’s.
When a dangerous moment lowers their defenses, Russ and Clare share their first kiss: “It was sweet, so sweet, and as his mouth moved over hers she felt a string she hadn’t known was tied tug free inside her chest, and everything that made her who she was fell open to him.” When Russ ends up in the hospital with a broken leg and Clare goes to visit him, she meets his wife, a meeting that pushes her to write Russ a note telling him they can’t see one another again. Russ appears at Easter services, and afterwards, the two affirm their separate commitments to the vows they have made, but admit their love for one another.
In marked contrast to the sprawling plot of book, book 4, To Darkness and to Death (2005), takes place in twenty-four hours. As Clare and Russ join the search for a missing young woman, they uncover a ruthlessness that involves blackmail and murder and touches local politics and environmental issues. As the tension surrounding the mystery ratchets up, so does the tension between Clare and Russ. Clare assures Hugh that she has never had sex with Russ, but when Hugh asks if she can swear she doesn’t want to, she remains silent, unwilling to lie to him. Russ, whose fiftieth birthday inspires self-examination, decides that he must tell his wife about his feelings for Clare.
In All Mortal Flesh (2006),winner of the 2007 Nero Award and finalist for the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity, Clare’s bishop, unhappy with the talk and with Clare’s decision to officiate in a gay commitment ceremony, appoints a conservative deacon to act as his watchdog at St. Alban’s. Russ’s problem is worse. His wife, from whom he has been separated for a short time, is found dead in the family home—and not of natural causes. The whispers about the relationship between the police chief and the Episcopal priest become clear cries of accusation. Russ, tormented by grief and guilt, finds his investigation into the murder impeded by the state police who have been informed that the local police are involved in a cover up. Clare too falls under suspicion. There are twists aplenty in the story, but the focus in this book is clearly on Clare and Russ and the increasing complexity of their relationship. The book ends on a surprising note when Clare, at the strong urging of her bishop, joins a National Guard Unit.
The sixth installment, I Shall Not Want (2008), which covers the year following the death of Russ’s wife, finds him still consumed with guilt and regret. Clare, who is still dealing with conflicts with church leaders, has her own guilt to deal with, along with her fear that, because of his love for his wife, Russ can never fully return her feelings. Russ’s guilt has driven him to cut Clare out of his life, and Clare, although she understands, misses him and the conversations they shared. “That’s what she missed the most: talking. Serious, silly, bone-deep, flippant, all their words and thoughts like gifts to each other, the only gifts they, with their hobbled hearts, could give.”
When the Hispanic workers on a farm belonging to Russ’s sister and brother-in-law prove to be illegal immigrants and a series of murdered immigrants are found, Russ and Clare are soon working together on another case and more deeply involved than ever on a personal level. This time the romance is not kisses only.
He didn’t let himself think. He kissed her. As lightly and briefly as one of her blessings. A thanksgiving and an apology. Then he lifted his head and saw her face, tipped back like the survivor of a long winter on the first day of hot spring sunshine. “Clare,” he said, his voice thick. She opened her eyes, full of heat, and just like that the desperate desire he thought he’d never feel again flamed to life like blue gas jetting out of cold iron.
But the new lovers’ time together is limited. Clare’s unit has been activated, and she will be deployed to Iraq in a few weeks. Meanwhile, a new character, Hadley Knox, becomes a police officer in Miller’s Kill because it is the most lucrative job available to her. When Kevin Flynn, another police officer falls for her, a strong secondary romance is introduced.
After I Shall Not Want, readers were left—wondering, worried, and hungry for the next book—for nearly three years, from June 2008 to April 2011. To say fans were eager to learn what was going on with Clare and Russ is an understatement.
One Was a Soldier (2011), the seventh book in the series, opens eighteen months after the close of I Shall Not Want with Clare returning to Miller’s Kill after a tour of duty in Iraq, not as a chaplain but in her former role as a helicopter pilot. Russ is ready to put a ring on her finger, but he has trouble finding the perfect moment to propose. Unhappy with sneaking into the vicarage at night, he is adamant that he is ready for his second marriage. Clare, however, is uncertain if his feelings for her are as strong as his feelings for his dead wife. When she asks why he wants to get married, Russ responds:
I want to be married because life is short, and I want to spend whatever I have left of it with you, every day, every night. I want to be married so that everything I have and everything I am is yours, and everything of you is mine. And I want to be married so I can lay you out on the dining room table if I feel like it and have you six ways from Sunday in the middle of the afternoon and if one of your parishioners walks in on us, it’s tough tittles for them.
But things are not quite so simple. Clare’s readjustment to civilian life is not problem-free, and not even Russ suspects that she is using alcohol and a supply of uppers and downers given to her while she was in Iraq to cope. She joins a therapy group that includes her friend Dr. Anne’s son (now a double amputee), a member of Russ’s department whose anger issues are jeopardizing his job and his marriage, an orthopedic surgeon troubled with memory loss, and a bookkeeper with a suspicious visitor and a disappearing act. When the bookkeeper is found shot to death, Russ concludes she committed suicide, but Clare suspects murder, a difference of opinion that leads to some harsh words between them. The uncovering of murder, fraud, and corruption that extends from Miller’s Kill to Iraq is mixed with wedding plans. While readers are privy only to bits of the actual wedding, they do see a tender, private exchange of vows after Clare confesses her addiction to Russ the night before the formal vows, and they attend the reception where Clare and Russ dance to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”
One Was a Soldier ends with Clare saying to Russ, “I’m pregnant.” Fans have spent two years speculating whether Clare will have the baby, whether the baby will have problems as a result of Clare’s heavy drinking and use of prescription drugs during the first trimester, and whether the pregnancy will create problems in the marriage of this couple who had decided they didn’t want children, given that Clare is entering her mid-forties and Russ is fourteen years older. Spencer-Fleming has said, “I'm not interested in writing a baby-makes-three happy-ever-after epilogue. I'm interested in raising and exploring more thorny, life-changing and relationship-challenging events in Russ and Clare's lives.”
Through the Evil Days is scheduled for release on November 5, 2013, and the cover copy certainly sounds as if Spencer-Fleming is giving readers the book her words portended.
On a frigid January night, Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne and Reverend Clare Fergusson are called to the scene of a raging fire, that quickly becomes a double homicide and kidnapping. Which is the very last thing Russ needs...Currently he's struggling with the prospect of impending fatherhood. And his new wife is not at all happy with his proposal for their long-delayed honeymoon: a week in an unelectrified ice-fishing cabin. The vestry of St. Alban's Church has called for the bishop to investigate Clare's “unpriestly” pregnancy. She has one week to find out if she will be scolded, censured, or suspended from her duties. Officer Hadley Knox is having a miserable January as well. Her on-again-off-again lover, Kevin Flynn, has seven days to weigh an offer from the Syracuse Police Department that might take him half a state away.
As the days and hours tick by, Russ and Clare fight personal and professional battles they've never encountered. In the course of this one tumultuous week the lives of the Millers-Kill residents readers have come to love and cherish change forever.
The book is already available for pre-order, and I’ve placed my order so that I can start reading after midnight on release day, a pattern I expect to repeat for the additional Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne books for which the author has contracted. But it’s not the mysteries that keep me an eager, faithful reader. It’s my affection for and engagement with Clare and Russ that keep me reading the novels of this romance reader’s mystery writer.
Do you like some romance in your mystery? See what else was recommended in Mysteries for Romance Readers, Part 1:
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.