Julia Spencer-Fleming

Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne - Episcopal Priest/Police Chief
Millers Kill in the Adirondacks, New York

"I Shall Not Want"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew JUN 27, 2008)

" ' I can't solve your problems for you, dear heart. I'm part of them.' "

"....'No,' he said. 'Never that. It's me. I'm...stuck. I'm like an old truck up to its hubcaps in snow. I go forward, I go back, nothing ever changes, or shakes loose, and the whole time I'm cold, inside and out. The only time I feel anything is when I'm angry. And that scares the crap out of me.' "

Six Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mysteries have passed from Julia Spencer-Fleming's agile, witty and plot-rich mind into readers' eager, hooked ones; and I wouldn't have missed a single one for the world. 

Of course, Spencer-Fleming stranded the characters in a devastating quandary at the end of book five, All Mortal Flesh.  Frankly, I despaired that Clare and Russ could rise from the ashes. Although I saw various ways to continue their story, I wondered whether the tragic twist was too much for love to overcome. 

So, I waited on pins and needles for this newest offering, I Shall Not Want. In it, Spencer-Fleming lays out with confidence the aftermath, the repercussions, of the previous book's tragedy. Guilt. Withdrawal. Frustration. These haunt our protagonists. But since they both continue to live in Millers Kill, unpracticed face-to-face moments can't be avoided. How do Russ and Clare cope? Can the love settled in them when they first met, the love that would not fall away during other testings, revive and strengthen now? These are the questions...and they are fearlessly answered.

Clare, the Episcopalian rector who has added helicopter piloting in the National Guard to her activities, and Russ, the police chief who has abandoned his too empty house to keep his mother company in hers, don't exist in a vacuum, naturally. Their personal tale is wrapped in the happenings of their town, especially the violent ones. I Shall Not Want begins with a bang as the reader follows rookie female officer Hadley Knox and the rest of the Millers Kill police force into a hostage standoff they desperately try to give a bloodless end...but cannot. Then, the story rolls back about six months to trace the causes of and players in that fateful shootout. These include an accident with an overturned van from which injured undocumented foreign agricultural workers flee, a series of execution-style murders, an identity switch, an influx of big city gang members, millions of dollars in illegal pot, and a family of redneck farmers.

But back to Hadley Knox for a second. She's a substantial and pleasing addition to the Millers Kill cast of characters. As a single mother struggling to make ends meet, her doubts about being able to cut it as the first sworn female officer on Russ' team seem very genuine. Since the youngest member of the force, Kevin Flynn, thinks she is the most beautiful woman around, she, amusingly, also has her hands full with him.

And that isn't the only humor. No Clare/Russ book would be whole without Spencer-Fleming's gentle sense of it, and I Shall Not Want includes several lovely laugh-out-loud bits. The most hilarious follows a scene of danger and uproar. I won't spoil it, but it is a wonderful tension-breaker. Clare and Russ still find openings to zing each other when they are on speaking terms...and not yelling about who should have told whom what when about imported workers without proper papers.    
Speaking of illegal immigration, Reverend Clare considers the liberal view of this hot button issue as the only one that's worth a hoot, and this may get under some readers' skins. But she isn't on her soap box too long, fortunately for those more likely to agree with the novel's ICE (formerly INS) officer's strict enforcement views than with hers.

Does I Shall Not Want really come to terms with the stark situation in which All Mortal Flesh left Russ and Clare? Again, without revealing too much, I think it does. But there's a certain skittering over the core feelings of anger, hopelessness, regret, and even betrayal that necessarily play deep in both shattered people. Arguably, to put it another way, some of the hard work isn't tackled. But Spencer-Fleming knows that as long as we live, there is no ending, happy or otherwise. We keep moving from one feeling and circumstance to another. So, if Russ and Clare don't hyper-analyze their every doubt, isn't that a touch of realism rather than a lack of penetrating drama? I Shall Not Want contains several finely drawn Clare/Russ scenes. They do, to an extent, confront their fears and saved-up accusations and admissions. Russ' confession to Clare about being "stuck" (in the quote at the top of this review) is honestly how he sees himself at that time, but how long will that last? Deputy Chief Lyle MacAuley pegs it when he tells Clare at a critical moment, "We don't have near enough time on this earth, and what we do have, we fritter away acting like damn fools." Yup. Clare and Russ can't afford to stay stuck forever in any one moment, not matter how fateful. They can't let any one thing define them. They are the sum of their lives -- lives that keep moving along, whether they like it or not.

Kevin takes his chance to giddily espouse his feelings for Hadley: "That was love....love, love, love." Spencer-Fleming makes sure love has its day in the sun in I Shall Not Want, but again, I won't spoil whether Clare and Russ get the same opportunity as Kevin. Whatever happens, love -- in all its manifestations, including lovemaking -- can't make happy endings, only happiness along the way. In this truth lies the bittersweet residue of the novel's poignant fade out.   

Now, here's hoping for a seventh addition to this adroit and distinguished mystery series!

  • Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from I Shall Not Want at author's website

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"All Mortal Flesh"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew JUN 27, 2008)

Hallelujah, Clare and Russ are back. Or, perhaps I should quote Russ and say, "Christ on a crutch!" I just finished All Mortal Flesh, and I am torn between joy at the prize of another Clare/Russ novel and mourning over what I read. This powerhouse fifth entry in the series about the feisty female Episcopal priest and the married police chief of Miller's Kill unreels developments galore for the star-crossed duo. The earlier books revolved around tragedies befalling other denizens of this small upstate New York town. Clare and Russ got involved by virtue of their professions and untangled the murderous mysteries. But those misadventures didn't directly dive-bomb our very human heroes. All Mortal Flesh does. It *is* about them; it strikes at them -- and their sympathetic readers -- mercilessly.

The first half of the novel delivers one tremendous jolt and another nearly as high on the shock Richter scale, but then advances as pretty straightforward procedural narrative -- making one wonder why another 150 pages might be necessary. Never fear. Suddenly, after a beautifully emotional scene in which Russ and Clare call upon the healing impetus of forgiveness, everything turns on its axis and the story is off and running again at full tilt. I shall not give any plot switchbacks away, but suffice it to say that as one nears the last pages, there is a certain expectation of how the book will conclude and where that might leave priest and chief. However, it never does to assume, especially with the consummately talented Spencer-Fleming choreographing the action. I felt drained and grieved after reading the final pages. I can only hope that we have not seen the last of Clare Fergussen and Russ Van Alstyne.

It was wonderful to visit with the many familiar faces we've come to know, including the MK police officers, the church assistant, Russ's mom, Father Aberforth, and others. The new woman deacon and woman state police investigator added zing and zest, as did the reporter, Ben Beagle (love that name). And, as always, Spencer-Fleming peppers the pages with humor now and then, adding just the right light seasoning. Still, All Mortal Flesh is no comedy. Not. At. All. We are starkly reminded that sometimes the vagaries of life and death blow away the best intentions of the best-intentioned and honorable people. 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 84 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from All Mortal Flesh at author's website

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"To Darkness and to Death"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky AUG 20, 2005)

“It’s true, he thought. We are all related. If not by blood, then by bonds we don’t even realize. Until they’re gone.”

Julia Spencer-Fleming, in her new book, To Darkness and to Death, describes the terrible events that occur in a small Adirondack town when a conglomerate called Global Wood Products is poised to purchase thousands of acres of timberland. Some residents of Millers Kill are resentful and angry about the sale. They resort to desperate acts, including kidnapping, assault, and murder to express their frustration and to exact revenge against the people who have wronged them.

The main characters are Clare Fergusson, an Episcopal priest, and Russ Van Alstyne, the Police Chief of Millers Kill. Although Russ is married, he and Clare have deep feelings for one another that they try to keep hidden. However, their mutual attraction has grown stronger with time, and the strain of pretending that they are platonic friends has become almost unbearable.

Spencer-Fleming has created a rich mosaic of diverse personalities with many strengths and weaknesses. Clare and Russ are compassionate and giving people whose self-respect and integrity prevents them from embarking on an extramarital affair. Eugene van der Hoeven is an emotionally and physically scarred recluse who stands to lose his beloved home if the land sale goes through. Randy Schoof, a logger, is deeply in debt; he panics and behaves rashly when he realizes that he will undoubtedly lose his job in the near future. The CEO of Reid-Gruyn Pulp and Paper mill, Shaun Reid, scrambles to prevent a hostile takeover of his company. The lives of all these people intersect in bizarre and unpredictable ways before the final drama plays out in an explosive conclusion.

To Darkness and to Death has an epic, universal quality. This book is reminiscent of a mini-Greek tragedy, in which the characters destroy themselves and their loved ones because of their arrogance, greed, selfishness, and stupidity. Spencer-Fleming captures the atmosphere of Millers Kill perfectly, contrasting the beauty of the area's scenic grandeur with the sick and ugly emotions that fester beneath the surface. The novel reads quickly and the tension grows unbearably as the story progresses. I wish that Spencer-Fleming had gone with a less busy ending. Too many melodramatic events occur one after the other, weakening the book's believability. Still, Julia Spencer-Fleming has created an engrossing, thematic, and well-written thriller with a powerful message.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 69 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from To Darkness and to Death at author's website

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)


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About the Author:

Julia Spencer-FlemingJulia Spencer-Fleming , with one parent from Tuscaloosa, AL and the other from Argyle, NY, likes to think of herself multi-geographical. A former military brat, she grew up in places as diverse as Mobile, Rome, Stuttgart and Syracuse. A graduate of Ithaca College, George Washington University and the U Maine School of Law, she took up writing while still a stay-at-home mother of two. During the time it took to finish her first book, she got a full-time job at a Portland, Maine, law firm and had a third child.

Julia didn't want to write yet another lawyer-sleuth, so she used her army past and a keen eye for the goings-on at her Episcopal church to create Clare Fergusson, first female priest in the small Adirondack town of Millers Kill. The result, In the Bleak Midwinter, made debut history when it won the St.Martin's/Malice Domestic contest, the Dilys Award from the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, and the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry awards for Best First Novel.

Now happily quit of the law, Julia lives and works in a 180-year-old farmhouse in the southern Maine countryside with her husband and three children.

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