I love Extra-Strength Excedrin. Is there even a regular strength? Somehow I think not, but I am always reassured by the idea that the pills in the green bottle are going to work extra hard to get rid of that headache.
Sometimes readers need Extra-Strength Diversion. The precise recipe probably differs for each of us but in the last couple of days I’ve wanted a combination of distraction and reassurance that I reliably find in murder mysteries. Bonus points go to good murder mysteries that are new to me. My ability to re-read with satisfaction what is supposed to be a suspenseful genre just supports my conviction that the crime and its solution is secondary. In fact, as I read All Mortal Flesh I realized that it’s exactly the artificiality of the mystery genre that I find so satisfying. These are not real people. These are not normal situations. When I’m feeling a little shaky, I don’t want to immerse myself in lifelike drama. I want to know that Things Will Be OK.
But I do somehow still want a simulacrum of normalcy, which is why I’ve enjoyed Julia Spencer-Fleming’s novels. She pairs an Episcopal priest with an upstate New York police chief to solve crimes. This is the fifth book in the series so the level of mayhem for a rural area is getting implausibly high but that’s one of the things I overlook. I’m far more interested in the moral implications of the female priest and the married police chief falling for each other. Spencer-Fleming takes this seriously: Clare and Russ are deeply involved, emotionally, even though the relationship has remained chaste. Russ has neglected his marriage and we have considerable sympathy for his wife. What’s more this is a very small town and everybody knows what’s going on — or thinks they do. (Clare’s standing in the church hierarchy is iffy at best, and suffers from her rash behavior.)
This would be an interesting source of conflict for a straight novel — but that wouldn’t be Extra-Strength Diversion. So in All Mortal Flesh the screws are tightened when both Russ and Clare become suspects in an especially disturbing murder case. Spencer-Fleming provides everything we need — plot twists, red herrings, action, final confrontation — and at the end of the novel peace has been restored. In the civic sense, that is: for Russ and Clare, the situation grows ever more complex, which just makes me want to read the next item in the series. Pretty clever.