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In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming 02 February 2023

2002 mystery. In a small town in upstate New York, a child is left on the church steps. A few days later, a young woman who's recently given birth is found murdered in the snow…

But while this is a police procedural mystery of the "he's a cop, she's not a cop" variety, it's mostly a character piece: Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief, out of the Army and enthusiastic for the quiet life, while Clare Fergusson is the new Episcopal priest in this conservative town. (Which seems to mean not explicitly horrid, since after all they allow women as priests, but still with a lot of parishioners who give lip service to goodwill-to-all but don't let it affect their own comfort.) It was her church steps the baby was left on, so she immediately gets involved, and as both she and Van Alstyne are ex-Army (she flew helicopters before she caught a dose of God) they're able to talk to each other in a way that they can't with most of the townspeople.

And this is where I start to feel a bit edgy. There's an obvious and immediate true friendship here, and a potential romantic spark too. Van Alstyne is married (though his wife Linda isn't on the page), and they decide not to do anything about it. All that's fine. But I can't help noticing the implications around these relationships; Linda runs a business (selling custom curtains), and she's away from home working on the business, which is making money, unlike Fergusson who's always there in the church or the rectory, and cooks like a master chef. It's not that I don't believe in the possibility of a woman like Linda who might be favouring her business over her marriage; but she's the only woman we meet in this situation, and since it's obviously going to be her destiny to be got out of the way to allow the One True Pairing I can't help wishing that this aligned less exactly with the worldview that women must always be homemakers first while men can do whatever they like.

Combine with that: the plot deals with some people who've lived their lives on welfare. Van Alstyne is conventionally contemptuous; Fergusson tries to be more understanding. But the people we meet slot straight into the stereotype, with a bonus fat-shaming.

I enjoyed reading about these characters, and about their solving of the mystery, but I kept getting hooked out of my immersion. It's a small town, and both of them are surprised that there's gossip when her car was outside his house all might. (For completely innocent reasons of course.) She wasn't expecting this much snow, fair enough, but she doesn't take half an hour out of this multi-day story to buy some suitable boots. She gets a message that's more or less "meet me by the old well at midnight" and makes no effort at all to let anyone know where she's going.

And then there are moments of complete HUH WHA, such as:

"How come I've never seen any pinups in one of these workrooms?" she asked. "I'd think that would be the perfect place for a little cheesecake."

"Introducing the feminine would disrupt the whole Iron Male, sweat lodge, men's-only aspect of the space, though," he said. "For instance, what kind of calendar does your dad have in his workshop?"

"Uh… World War Two nose art."

"Nose art?"

"Paintings on the noses of planes. Please don't ask me to explain."

Ms Spencer-Fleming, have you ever seen WWII aircraft nose art? There is, hmm, substantial overlap with "a little cheesecake".

As a result I can't recommend the book anything like whole-heartedly. There are some jolly good bits, but they're mixed with moments of out-of-character idiocy, and some assumptions I found hard to stomach. I still haven't decided whether I'll read another in the series.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog.

Series: Fergusson-Van Alstyne | Next in series: A Fountain Filled With Blood

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