Uh-oh. I’m getting to the end of the series.
You know the feeling: There’s only one left? And it’s not coming out for a month? That’s where I am with Julia Spencer-Fleming. I read faster than she writes.
On the other hand, if she didn’t take so much care writing her books they wouldn’t be so good. That’s just the deal. The balance between mystery/puzzle and character would not be so well-calibrated. The introduction of new characters not so interesting. The exploration of the setting not so rich.
It’s the latter quality that particularly struck me in I Shall Not Want. Mysteries must take place in a small community in order to limit the pool of suspects. Hence nun mysteries, country house murders, small-town crime series. If you’re lucky, as a writer you get to produce a series of these works and then your challenge is inventing your bad guy. Is he a home-grown case? Or does he come from Outside? This time around, the threat is external.
It turns out that there are Mexican farm workers in upstate New York. We are introduced to this notion by Rev. Clare Fergusson’s discussion with a feisty nun. Naturally our hotheaded rector drags St. Alban’s into a ministry to the migrants, annoying some of her vestry members. And naturally a dead body is found and the investigative spotlight turns on the aliens, legal and illegal. Naturally also Russ van Alstyne, as chief of police, spearheads the investigation and it all seems perfectly plausible. If there’s a whiff of the “issue novel” it’s minor. Spencer-Fleming is comfortable with letting awkward truths hang before us. (In fact the upcoming novel, One Was a Soldier, centers on Iraq war veterans.) Spencer-Fleming is also, it turns out, comfortable writing sex scenes. She must have decided she’d spun out the tension long enough, and her protagonists Clare and Russ finally get some satisfaction. If that weren’t enough, she introduces a new female recruit to the Millers Kill Police Department and sparks fly there, as well. It’s a smart move. Keeping things interesting among the secondary characters is an essential element of retaining readers’ interest over the span of a series. I know I’m not alone in waiting for more.