As a promotion for her latest release last year, Julia Spencer-Fleming offered the first two books in her Clare Ferguson series as a free download. I'm generally up for a good mystery and the people who promoted the links had good things to say about the series, so I downloaded them both and added the first to the TBR list. It came up on the random number generator while I was down at my parents' place over Christmas. I tried converting the PDF to something I could read on my PDA (the PDF reading software on my Palm pretty much sucks) and had trouble doing it. So I moved on to something else (Stephenie Meyer's New Moon) after putting In the Bleak Midwinter on hold at the library. I picked it up last Saturday and started reading it after I finished Soul Deep.
Clare Ferguson is the new Episcopalian priest in Miller's Kill. She's just beginning to settle in, coming to terms with her conservative parish and its concerns about its first woman priest as well as getting used to the bitterness of winter in this part of the world. As the book opens, she steps out her door for an evening run and finds an abandoned baby in a box at the door, complete with a note asking that a known childless couple in the parish adopt him. The police are called in and in the process she meets Miller's Kill's sheriff, Russ Van Alstyne. Both ex-military people, they find they have a lot in common and quickly become friends. When Clare convinces Russ to take her with him on a Friday night patrol, the last thing she expects is to be party to finding the body of a young woman. The dead girl is suspected (and soon found) to be the mother of the baby. The mystery deepens, another man is killed and Clare finds her own life in danger. She and Russ work together to solve the murders and at the same time develop a solid friendship.
For starters, let me say that this is a very good, solid read with an excellent mystery (I thought I was very clever and had figured it out, but I turned out to be totally wrong). The book, and I suspect the whole series too, deserve the praise they have received. However, I had some issues with it. They were mostly personal, and may well have come from starting a series when is already up to six books, with all the potential for spoilers than comes with that.
First, I found the book something of a slog at times. It actually had so much detail that I felt I was forcing my way through the huge snowdrifts frequently mentioned (a strange feeling when it is the height of summer here). By about half way the pace picked up a bit, but I did find myself skimming all the description in the section where Clare is lost in the snow (to say more would be a spoiler).
But my main issue was in the friendship between Clare and Russ. Not because it was badly done - indeed, it is beautifully done - but because I know that with time they start feeling more than friendship. Russ is married, and for that reason both of them fight this, but the feelings persist and even in the first book, the potential for this is there for the reader to pick up on. I could feel it, and this was not helped by my spoiler-knowledge that things do indeed progress, and this made me very uncomfortable reading what should have been a lovely, growing friendship.
Now, my issue isn't with the characters but with the author.
I was discussing this with a friend, trying to explain something I wasn't totally clear on myself. I pointed out that I was finding Clare and Russ's friendship uncomfortable to read, knowing that he was married and where things would go from there. She responded (quoted with her permission) by saying:
I believe you make a commitment to someone, and if you feel you can no longer keep that commitment then you need to explain that to your partner before you move on. The first two books in the series shows Russ and Claire's slowly developing friendship. I think over a year passes between the first and third books. They....click....is the best way I can describe it. It really isn't until the third book that they realise that the feelings they have are a bit more than friendship. And both are horrified about it and attempt to ignore it. I guess their feelings kind of grew on them without them realising it. I think they are both honourable people who suddenly find themselves with feelings they don't want.
However, my issue isn't something as simple as not condoning infidelity (although I don't condone infidelity). My response in our email conversation:
I totally get what you're saying about Clare and Russ. And I completely agree as well. They are very well drawn and developed characters and I know they wouldn't do anything inappropriate. All the same, I find myself uncomfortable. Almost like it's the author's fault, to put two decent, trustworthy characters in this situation and leave them to deal with the fallout. Because I like them both and I trust them both, but don't want to watch them going through this. It doesn't help that there's an excerpt from a later book in the back of the paperback where Russ acknowledges he's in love with someone other than his wife. I still trust him, but I don't like that the author did that to him. Does that make sense? She had the ability to make them both single, or make him in the process of divorcing Linda or something, but instead she chose to leave him married and do this mean thing to him and Clare. I don't know. I'm still trying to figure out my issue. But it isn't with Clare and Russ themselves.
I think that's about the best I can manage to explain my reaction to the book (which is why I cheated and copied our emails instead of trying to write it all out again). I think In the Bleak Midwinter is a good book and I understand why people like it - and the rest of the series as well. But I won't personally be reading any more book in this series. There are too many other good books to read to read ones that make me uncomfortable for no good reason (I'm willing to be made uncomfortable for a good reason, but it has to be a really good one). Basically, in this case, I just don't need the angst.
In the Bleak Midwinter
Clare Ferguson, Book 1