Review: The Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mystery Series

Rating: 3 / 5

Series Order
1. In the Bleak Midwinter
2. A Fountain Filled with Blood
3. Out of the deep I Cry
4. To Darkness and to Death
5. All Mortal Flesh
6. I Shall Not Want

WARNING: SPOILERS below. I will mark them clearly but be careful if you have not read All Mortal Flesh.

When I started Julia Spencer-Fleming's Russ Van Alstyne/Clare Fergusson mystery series it seemed that on the surface everything included should work for me. At each book's heart there is a decent mystery and some well plotted characterizations. And Ms. Fleming is an absolute master of creating atmosphere.

Set in the fictional town of Millers Kill in upstate New York, the protagonist Reverend Clare Fergusson is an Episcopal priest new to her parish and is still coming to terms with the harsh winters that occur just south of the border. As someone who hates and loathes snow, ice, wind, hail, sleet, I quickly empathized with Clare whose misery is sketched beautifully in the first couple books.

Here's an example of the kind of writing you can expect ..

There are moments in life that are between: between the blow and the pain, between the phone ringing and the answer, between the misstep and the fall. One that comes to everyone is a moment, or three, or five, between sleeping and waking, when the past has not yet been re-created out of memory and the present has made no impression. It is a moment of great mercy; disorienting, like all brushes with grace, but a gift nonetheless.
Russ Van Allstyne is the Chief of Police of Millers Kill and he often finds Clare barging into his investigations out of impulsiveness and a single-minded desire to help- the victim, the accused, it doesn't matter. (As an aside, what is it with fictional heroines named Clare and a misguided sense of responsibility due to their professions, nurse/doctor and priest?).

As soon as they meet in the first book they recognize each other as kindred spirits. Or as is romantically put in one of the later books - the missing part of their souls. Clare was in the army for ten years trained as a helicopter pilot before she got her calling and was ordained. She is also trying to deal with the loss of a beloved younger sister. Russ was in the Military Police until he resigned and returned to the town he grew up in. Because of the nature of his work, past and present, he is a recovering alcoholic, but tries very hard not to bring the brutality of his work home to his family.

I enjoyed that the topics covered in the mysteries are wide and varied. From conservation and it's effect on small business, to gay rights, immunization, sociopathy, religion, adoption, immigration and migrant workers.

Initially I was skeptical about the small town setting. How many crimes can there possibly be? But, what I didn't expect was that the setting gives so much scope for elaborating on the lives of the characters, and I enjoyed this aspect too. Russ and Clare have to be doubly careful of their actions, since something as trivial as having lunch together every Wednesday is much remarked and speculated on.

As I read, it quickly became apparent that there were two problems here. And it isn't the religion which I was wary about, going in. The first, you see the little by-line tacked onto all the titles of these books 'A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery' which implies that both Clare and Russ have something to do with solving the mystery at hand. A priest and a cop.

In order to get this scenario to work, Clare should obviously have data about the police investigation and with this plot device Russ comes across looking like an incompetent fool. Because he carries out interrogations with Clare present, or tells Clare details about ongoing investigations, or even discusses suspects with her. Russ would say I've been watching too much Law and Order and he'd be right. Clare also stumbles on the perpetrators (haha more L&O terminology) through a combination of luck, nosiness and by withholding critical information from the police. Anyway, I was willing to let this bit slide, sometimes you just have to have faith in the author's vision and the other good points more than made up for it.

But then we come to the second bigger problem. See, how I slid in that bit about Russ's family before. Family, when I was dying to say wife. Russ is actually happily married for the last 25 years to a beautiful, dynamic woman but over the course of the first book Clare and he fall in love. Now, I love romance in my mystery series and I love the subject of forbidden romance, but I cannot stomach infidelity.

Clare and Russ never let the relationship get physical, she because she is opposed to casual relationships (the priesthood does not require celibacy) and is morally opposed to one with a married man, while he is faithful and does love his wife. As if it makes a difference. I think emotional infidelity is the more difficult of the two to overcome and more of a betrayal to the spouse.

Not having an inkling it was going to occur, I was gobsmacked when this angle turned up in the first book. And what I found more disturbing is that Russ's wife Linda is offline until around the 4th book. We see everything from Clare's or Russ's view, almost making Linda 'the other woman' because as a reader it's obvious you are expected to sympathize a bit with Clare.

~~~~~ SPOILER ALERT ~~~~~~~~~

So, there I was reading each book with a lot of mental cringing, but not able to stop because it's a series and I'm a bit OC after I've started one.

Until the 5th book, 'All Mortal Flesh' where Linda dies. And I was left with a sense of severe disappointment, because at that moment I realized what I actually wanted to read about was something that would get these people out of the mess they were in.

As I mentioned before, Linda's character (the conflict in the first 4 books) never gets her own voice, we are only given impressions from the people around her. Russ tells Clare that his wife doesn't understand him. At social occasions where Russ and Clare are present, she's missing due to a number of reasons, one of them being conveniently that she never goes anywhere where her mother-in-law is also invited. Here's another broad hint to the reader that they shouldn't like the wife too much, since Russ's mother is presented sympathetically and she likes Clare.

Linda has one significant scene in the 4th book and she's offed in the next one. The manner in which she dies is guaranteed to add a source of conflict (guilt) to the protagonists' relationship since the original conflict has been removed.

So, basically Linda's character is just a manipulative plot device and is the reason I was so disappointed by the events of the 5th book. And as I write this I realize how much I disliked both Russ and Clare and the entire infidelity sub-plot. At least this book accomplished one thing, I'm finally done with this series.

~~~~~ END SPOILERS ~~~~~~~~~

I would give the series an overall 3 rating because of the problems I mentioned above. If they do not bother you, then I think it should work for you. If it does, do comment here, I'd love to read a different viewpoint :)


samir said...

Tried to comment a couple of time, got sidetracked; will be back later.

avdi said...

Your descriptions are charming. Let me see if I can find the first book at the library today. :D

Yword said...

true. very charming. loved the excerpt too. infidelity is a painful issue to putit mildly.but i am not really very judgemental about it - it makes sense to me that one can fall in love after one has married someone. The rather timid approach to the subject in the only desi film I can think of - Kabhi Alvida Na kehna - i thot Karan Johar had a point. ANyway,the series seems rather okayish or maybe its all the flaws you have pointed out that make me feel this way

WhatsInAName said...

I agree with you; though I may not have noticed the sub plot when it comes to solving mysteries ;) infidelity is surely an uncomfy topic. I liked the way you pointed that emotional infidelity is the more evil of the 2 and more difficult to overcome. In any case, its not something which can be justified surely.
But don't we have so many such stories where u must sympathise with the other woman rather than the wronged one.

couchpapaya said...

Samir - np

Avdi - I hope they work out for you!!

Yword, WIAN - Sorry about the biased approach, I admit it's not a subject I am comfortable reading. But, I feel I did give it a chance. It was at the 5th book where I realised that there was no possibility of a realistic resolution that I felt manipulated. And that is the biggest reason why I'm giving it a thumbs down. This is one of those series where I was more invested in the characters (the mysteries were hit and miss) so once my interest in the characters dropped there was nothing left to keep me reading anymore.

bouncingbubble said...

ur delightful review was enough for me. can't read the series as of now. btw I liked all the titles, esply the 2nd one. i too dislike infidelity episodes, as they seem forced inclusions at times.. one doubt - other than this which others were in ur mind when u said forbidden love?

samir said...

I have never analyzed whether I have any turn-offs specifically, but am pretty sure infidelity would not be one of them. Not that it would be plus either, in a mystery I would be looking for the quality of the mystery, the detection, the characters etc.
Clare does not like snow, now I can identify with that as well.
If I come across this one, I will read it and let you know.
Have you read Patricia Cornwell, I am sure you must have. I liked them initially, but over many books they became repetitive.
Is this series like that ?

couchpapaya said...

Bubbles - The titles were one of the reasons I was drawn to the series, they're all names of Christian hymns. For forbidden romance, check out the fantasy series Sharing Knife (and even to some extent The Thief series) which I reviewed here ...
I cant remember any recent reads other than Palace of Illusions and Twilight - will update this post when I think of them!!

Samir - You must be sick of the snow after last week. We're getting our 10" today and tomorrow :( I did read a lot of the Cornwell books, until I got tired of them. I cant remember why exactly (see what happens with not reviewing :), I think I remember Scarpetta's character changing and I didnt like that because I started out with a lot of admiration for her. And I think you're right about the repetitiveness. This series is not much like Cornwell's, for one I think the Scarpetta series was grittier with their crimes and crime-solving and had a lot of forensic detail. Also, the mysteries here are not very well handled, no trail of clues and logical inferences. Like I mentioned, Clare bumbles around until she hits on whodunit. Let me know what you think if you read these. And I would be interested if you found anything else like the Scarpetta series? I just started a detective series by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) which seems promising. Will review if I like it.

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