For me, this series has become the place that I go when I need something to read that I know I will enjoy from the first page.
I think Julia Spencer-Fleming has achieved something remarkable with these books. It’s rare to find a writer who can produce strong characters AND a strong sense of place AND a good plot AND make each book in the series better than the last.
There are books that I enjoy because they’re clever or well-written or innovative or they make me think.
Then there are books like this one, that I breathe in like mountain air in the morning. That I lose myself in completely. Where the people matter to me and the story holds me. Where my wife will ask why I’m smiling as I read and where I try not to cry in public. These are the books that sing the song of my heart.
‘I Shall Not Want’ starts with an action scene. Not the kind where a kickass hero struts his stuff but the kind where the good guy is filled with fear and asking whether $12 hour plus benefits is a good enough reason to get shot at when she has kids at home who depend on her. The action is intense. The outcome is potentially tragic.
And that’s just the prologue.
Going from a standing start to complete absorption in a few pages is one of the things that Julia Spencer-Fleming is good at. She also knows how to keep the series fresh. The character under fire in the opening scene is a woman police officer I don’t know yet I’m immediately in her head and at the same time wondering what her back story is. The officer’s story showed me how the characters I’ve grown to know over the previous five books would look to an outsider. Linking the officer both to the Police Chief who hires her and to the Priest whose church employs the officer’s grandfather as a sextant, provides a link between the worlds of the two main characters even when, for much of the book, they’re not willing to talk to one another.
Another way that Julia Spencer-Fleming keeps the series fresh is by pulling in contemporary topics that affect life in rural New York. This time the story pivots around the use of foreign, sometimes undocumented migrant labour on the farms, the relationship between a wealthy-three-generations-ago-but-now-bordering-on-white-trash family and the drugs trade and a tragedy that starts with a well-intentioned lie about identity.
Yet the main pull of the series remains the relationship between Claire, the Episcopalian priest who has now also re-upped into the National Guard as the helicopter pilot she was before her vocation called her and Russ, the recently violently-widowed, deeply guilt-ridden Chief of Police. This could so easily be one of those cosy-but-clichéd relationships that some romance series are built on, but it isn’t. Julia Spencer-Fleming has built two very strong-willed characters, tightly bound by their personal ethical codes, granted them a sometimes overwhelming level of mutual attraction and respect and then has done terrible things to them and the people around them that make it impossible for them simply to be together. And she’s done it in a way that doesn’t feel forced or TV-Soap-contrived but which is a product of who these two people are and the environment that they’re living in.
I like that Claire and Russ aren’t the only strong characters in this book. The people around them feel real and large parts of the book are spent on their challenges and hopes.
So, six books in and this series continues to delight and even manages to surprise me. What more could I ask?
Well… book seven of course.