With so much anxiety during the holiday season — will Junior get home in the snow, does Aunt Tillie still like gingerbread, would hubby wear a bright green track suit and is he an XXL — it’s very soothing to have a well-constructed mystery to dive into. Thank you, Julia Spencer-Fleming, for taking my mind off the miserable state of the United Postal Service, etc. To Darkness and to Death, which features beatings, explosions, and logging machinery, was just the ticket. Once again, we’re in Millers Kill with the Rev. Clare Fergusson and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne. This time we actually meet Russ’s wife Linda who turns out to be a “pocket Venus.” Who knew Linda would be a hottie? Once more, Clare’s and Russ’s emotions move one step closer to conflagration while the two of them cooperate to solve a violent puzzle.
Of course Spencer-Fleming encounters the challenge implicit in her success. If you write good mysteries, there’s an audience for them, and you get to write more of them. However, with each volume in your series, you put more stress on your readers’ suspension of disbelief. Millers Kill, New York, an Adirondack hamlet, has been home to a disproportionate amount of mayhem. I’m fine with it — for now. And of course reading a series one after the other makes the basic premise seem especially incredible. But I do wonder how long this fiction can be maintained. (One possible answer: See Sue Grafton.)
My other quibble: in this volume, Spencer-Fleming dips into a style that reminds me of Jane Haddam, another mystery writer. The omniscient narrator jumps from the consciousness of one actor in the drama to another, and another as the tale unfolds. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. Maybe that is simply how the story needs to be told, but it’s not fresh, and that bothers me.
On the positive side: as ever, Spencer-Fleming manages the plotting dexterously. This time the mystery concerns the development of a tract of land near Millers Kill and the author lays out the competing interests even-handedly, showing how different outcomes threaten different constituencies and characters. Equally even-handed is the distribution of sympathy; no one is a complete bad guy, no one wears a halo. And as in the earlier books of the series, Spencer-Fleming threads the plot with the liturgy and moral concerns of the Episcopal church. Not only does this add heft to the books, but I bet Episcopalians are big mystery fans.