Just in case you’re having a busy day, here’s a synopsis: this is one more post about the challenges that face writers of mystery series.
Julia Spencer-Fleming’s original premise was unusual: she paired the cranky chief of a small-town police department with a complicated female Episcopal minister. (The book titles are all phrases from hymns.) It was a setup full of interesting tensions: Millers Kill is not entirely ready for a female priest and the Rev. Clare Fergusson is not entirely comfortable in the fishbowl community of Millers Kill. Russ Van Alstyne, meanwhile, is unhappily married, yet he and Clare are drawn to each other. One major hurdle that Spencer-Fleming has consistently been able to negotiate is the logistical one of dragging Clare into various murder investigations, and she’s broadened her scope by focusing on social conditions in rural upstate New York and creating appealing secondary characters with problems (and crackling sexual tensions) of their own.
So I’m probably nitpicking. I missed the delight of discovery when I started Through the Evil Days but that’s standard when you read through a series. (See Game of Thrones Vol. 4) And can I really complain about a mystery with too much plot? Apparently I can.
Through the Evil Days begins with the kidnapping of a little girl named Mikayla Jones who has had a recent liver transplant. She’s on a complex regime of medication and when Russ catches the case, the clock starts ticking. A week without the right meds will kill Mikayla. At the same time, Clare is pregnant, despite the fact that she and Russ agreed not to have children, and Russ is furious, so marital squabbling punctuates the crime-solving agenda. It turns out that Mikayla’s kidnapping is collateral damage from a meth ring operating in the area; cue various bad guys whom I admit I never did straighten out. The tattooed one and the bald one and the one with the child-molestation conviction all kind of blurred together. Add one of those “storms of the century” we get so often now, to snarl transport and cripple communications, and you see what I mean about plotting.
It takes a lot of skill to juggle all the different components of a book like this and Julia Spencer-Fleming keeps all the balls in the air. She also quite obviously sets the stage for the next book in the series, with the romance between Millers Kill cops Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn heating up, then back on ice. There’s even some unresolved tension about the fate of the Millers Kill Police Department itself. So yes, of course I’ll keep reading the series. But with lowered expectations.