This is the kind of book that I know will have customers coming in and shaking me by the shoulders to either mourn or complain about what happens in it. The only other author who has that effect on readers is Elizabeth George, so it says lots that Julia Spencer-Fleming’s now five book series has the same effect. Her main characters. Claire and Russ, are so fleshed out, so tormented, so genuinely human, that you can’t help but be completely swept up in their lives whether you want to or not. Book five (and I’m not giving anything away) opens with the discovery of Russ’ wife Linda horribly butchered on the floor of their kitchen. Spencer-Fleming’s greatest gift, I think, is in the emotional details of her characters, and in her portrayal of Russ’ grief and Claire’s response to Linda’s death, she doesn’t disappoint. To catch up readers who may not have read the rest of the series, Claire Fergusson is the Episcopal priest in tiny Miller’s Kill, New York, and Russ Van Alstyne is the married police chief. Claire and Russ, while not having an actual affair, have engaged in “an affair of the heart”, and many people in town are aware of their relationship, now including (as of book four) Linda Van Alstyne. She and Russ are recently separated. Spencer-Fleming’s other gift is to take the backdrop provided by these genuinely conflicted characters, as well as Claire’s unusual occupation, and spin a clever and gripping mystery around them. In this book, of course, the mystery part is obvious – who killed Linda?
Russ is the main suspect as far as the state police are concerned, so he has to function (somewhat classically, for a mystery hero) more or less out of the loop and on the lam from the state cop who wants him in handcuffs. Russ, with the help of Claire, is doing his best to prove he didn’t do it, and because we loyal readers (Spencer-Fleming breeds fanatics) know Russ can’t be guilty, we’re with him every step of the way. Claire and Russ are working on parallel paths that don’t intersect all that much – they’ve been advised to stay away from one another, and even worse, Claire now has a “helper” in the form of a new Deacon, the perfect Elizabeth De Groot. Claire is certain De Groot is there to keep an eye on her and keep her on the straight and narrow (i.e., away from Russ, not officiating at any gay wedding ceremonies); she of course adds to the emotional complications that seem to continually dog both Claire and Russ. Spencer-Fleming is such a talented story teller that characters like Elizabeth De Groot and the nasty state cop who wants Russ behind bars would be, in the hands of a lesser writer, mere cardboard plot devices. In this story they are interesting, albeit annoying characters, who nevertheless assist this author in telling her story the way she wants to tell it.
I can’t tell you too much more of the plot which is full of both surprise and heartbreak; I don’t remember the last time a book actually made me gasp in surprise, but this one managed to do it. If you are a Claire Fergusson fan, run, don’t walk, to grab up this installment. It’s not to be missed.