I really enjoyed “In The Bleak Midwinter” and knew I’d found a good new series. Coming up with a second book in a series that had such a strong start has to be a challenge but Julia Spencer-Fleming manages it well.
She continues to use two strong, likeable main characters, Clare the ex-army helicopter pilot turned Episcopalian Priest and Russ the Vietnam vet turned local Chief of Police, to power the story. She uses a regular pulse of humour makes to keep this a fun read and ups the cuteness factor by adding two Berneses Mountain dogs to the mix.
Yet the book isn’t a cosy mystery. Like its predecessor, it confronts tough social issues, in this case violence against gay men, the pollution of the Adirondacks by PCBs and the tension between providing local jobs and destroying local land. The crimes in this book are darker and more brutal than in the first book, but despite the rather off-putting title (a quote from a William Cowper hymn about washing away sin) the violence is not gratuitous and mostly takes place off-stage.
The we’re-attracted-but-can’t-let-ourselves-do-anything-about-it-except-feel-guilty-without-being-any-less-attracted relationship between Clare and Russ develops in a grown-up, slightly repressed but completely believable way that doesn’t take over the plot but does deepen the characters. Russ’s wife remains physically absent, even when the story has to be twisted a little to achieve it, which actually increases the strength of her presence as a source of guilt to both of the main characters. Russ’ mother, a die-hard activist since the sixties, adds some spice to the story and rounds out Russ a bit.
I admired the ingenuity used to keep the Clare plausibly involved in the action around the crimes. It worked even when I could see it coming. The scene with the helicopter was exciting but required an extra-special effort at suspending disbelief and some fairly heavy-handed plot-work. On the whole though, this was a well put together mystery that kept me guessing most of the time.
I’ll be staying with this series and hoping that the quality stays high and the titles get better.