In the Bleak Midwinter
St. Martin's Press
US Mass Market Paperback
384 Pages; $6.99
Publication Date: March, 2003
Date Reviewed: November 24, 2003
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003
Julia Spencer-Fleming is an author whose debut novel hit the mystery scene with a mighty big splash. 'In the Bleak Midwinter', released in 2001, won so many "first mystery" awards they need to be listed vertically:
2003 Anthony Award (Bouchercon World Mystery)
2003 Agatha Award (Malice Domestic)
2003 Dilys Award (Independent Mystery Booksellers Assn.)
2003 Macavity Award (Mystery Readers International)
2003 Barry Award (Deadly Pleasures Magazine)
2002 nomination for Mystery Ink's Gumshoe Award for Best First Mystery
2001 St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery
The majority of these awards honor books in the cozy sub-genre, also referred to as "traditional" mysteries in the Agatha Christie mold. Cozies are character driven stories with amateur sleuths, minimal violence, all off-screen, where the readers are challenged to solve the puzzle along with - or even before - the author solves it for you.
This is the kind of book I normally wouldn't touch. Solely as a matter of personal preference, cozies just aren't my cup of tea and the words "amateur sleuth" set me on edge. But reassured by all the awards and curious to keep abreast of what's going on with soft-boiled writers, I gave it a try. If Spencer-Fleming's book is the new bellwether, cozies are less comfy and cute than they used to be, more contemporary in content and language and with more robust action that Christie would have contemplated. She has created a well-written and adeptly plotted first novel, with interesting, likely long-lived characters, and a believable, atmospheric setting. But, it's still unmistakably a cozy -- a soft-boiled romantic chick lit book -- the kind that is all-but-guaranteed to win a large and loyal following among the scores of cozy readers out there.
'In the Bleak Midwinter' involves Clare Fergusson, a former military helicopter pilot now rookie Episcopalian priest, and Police Chief Russ van Alstyne preaching, patrolling, and probing crime in the small town of Millers Kill in upstate New York. The discovery of an abandoned newborn on the church's doorstep soon leads to finding the newborn's murdered teenage mother, followed shortly thereafter by the discovery of her abusive father, also murdered. Clare and Russ must sift through a number of possible criminal culprits, each with motivation and opportunity, to find the true killer. The whodunit runs in parallel with the willtheydoit tango between Clare, the priest, and Russ, the married police chief. Their mutual attraction is apparent, but coyly unacknowledged by either. Matrimony and the priesthood breed denial of the obvious.
Spencer-Fleming's prose is strong; her descriptions are evocative and her dialogue, especially that between Clare and Russ, is excellent - realistic and witty. Characterization drives this novel, and she has created two distinctly individual protagonists with rich histories and believable quirks. Clare's predilection for manly professions - military helicopter pilot and priest - give credibility to her strong-willed toughness; her finely developed social conscious and penetrating intelligence is appropriate for a priest. Russ is a stalwart small-town cop, a Millers Kill native, with a military background and a wife who's often mentioned, but never introduced.
The plotting of 'In the Bleak Midwinter' is ambitious and controlled. Spencer-Fleming introduces an appropriately large cast of ancillary characters each with a possible motive for murder. The pacing is swift and lively, moving easily from Clare-Russ interactions to crime-scene revelation, encompassing, but never derailed by, descriptions of Clare's challenges as a progressive female priest in a less-than-welcoming parish. While violence is sparingly described, the consequences of violence are clearly voiced; while Clare is an amateur investigator, she clearly has the calling.
But 'In the Bleak Midwinter' misses the mark in a couple of important ways. First, there are far too many coincidental meetings between Clare and Russ, and a few too many indiscrete undertakings by Clare. And there's an absolutely credibility-crushing segment where Clare opts for a solo goose chase in remote mountains with a killer on the loose that's reminiscent of those dumb-chick-investigates-strange-noise-in-haunted-house sequences in slasher movies. These are rookie mistakes, first novel gaffes that are easily remedied.
More seriously, and despite a Clare-in-danger and a better Russ-in-danger segment, this mystery was almost totally lacking in suspense. It's quite a challenge to take basically everyday, small town folks and whip up enough oomph to make one of them a believable murderer. I found myself reading the last chapters solely to find out who committed the bad deeds, doubting that any of the candidates was particularly likely to have done so. When revealed, both the culprit and the motivation were shallow and unconvincing. Lacking suspense, what remained was the romantic tension between Clare and Russ, and readers could pretty well guess how that was going to turn out.
Spencer-Fleming has updated the cozy to be sure, but it's still cloying and cute, and it goes down way too easy for my hard boiled tastes. 'In the Bleak Midwinter' begs comparison to Giles Blunt's 'Forty Words for Sorrow', another mystery that shares an icy small-town setting and a strong male, female pairing of police protagonists and character-driven appeal. 'Forty Words for Sorrow' was a beautifully atmospheric story with a wallop; 'In the Bleak Midwinter' is a cozy cup of tea. Pick the one that suits you.