Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Time to Kill

I have been spending an unusual amount of time recently with a female Episcopal priest. Of course, she spends a lot of time with the local police chief. There is no problem, however, since both are fictional and the leading characters in a series of mystery novels by Julia Spencer-Fleming.

Clare Fergusson is the thirty-something priest of St. Alban’s church in Millers Kill, New York, a small town nestled in the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York. A Virginian by birth and former Army helicopter pilot, Clare is in her first charge out of seminary. Chief Russ Van Alstyne is 15 years older. A Vietnam vet and former military policeman, Van Alstyne has returned to this home town upon retirement to head up the local police department, accompanied by the wife who helped pull him out of alcoholism. As one might imagine, events conspire to bring Clare and Russ together on several levels.

Neither our protagonists nor the people of Millers Kill are saints; they are people who wrestle with the issues of life and often stumble along the way. In All Mortal Flesh, Van Atlsyne tells Clare, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in twenty-five years of law enforcement, it’s that anyone is capable of anything if pushed hard enough.” Clare’s experiences as a priest don’t contradict this observation. In fact, her challenge is to be the mediator of God’s grace to such people—and often to herself.

Those residents of Millers Kill who cross the line are often people like us—a parent concerned about his child’s future, a low-wage worker who has lost his job, a woman whose family has fallen on hard times, a doctor trying to cover up his transgressions. They don’t intend to do evil, but their burdens become untenable. Of course, there is the occasional sociopath as well.

Although Clare and Russ are the heroes of the series, they have their flaws as well. They take care of others but they often find themselves lonely and with no real friends. Thus, the friendship that turns into something more and heightens the tension of the relationship. The emotions they experience are real and often wrenching. Clare’s struggles to listen to God while ministering to those around her and attending to her own needs will resonate with clergy.

Spencer-Fleming is an effective writer who tries to avoid formula. The events in one novel take place over the course of a single day. Another goes back and forth in time from the Prohibition days of the 1920’s to the present day with other stops along the way to unravel several mysteries. One is written almost entirely from the perspective of a new member of the police force. The author allows us to get close to the two primary characters, but she also introduces other three-dimensional characters in each novel and weaves them into her plots. No one’s life is static and characters evolve from one story to another, so the reader will want to read the series sequentially.

Each novel unfolds at a pace that pulls the reader along easily. As you might expect, there is often a climatic event that both surprises and exhilarates, putting one or both of the leads in peril.

There are six novels in the series with a seventh due in April 2011. I am looking forward to the next episode in the lives of these interesting characters. If you start now, you can read all six and be ready for the new title, One Was a Soldier.

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