RogerBW's Blog

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. ["As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases."]

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

Comments on this post are now closed. If you have particular grounds for adding a late comment, comment on a more recent post quoting the URL of this one.

Tags 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s 3d printing action advent of code aeronautics aikakirja anecdote animation anime army astronomy audio audio tech aviation base commerce battletech beer boardgaming book of the week bookmonth chain of command children chris chronicle church of no redeeming virtues cold war comedy computing contemporary cornish smuggler cosmic encounter coup covid-19 crime crystal cthulhu eternal cycling dead of winter doctor who documentary drama driving drone ecchi economics en garde espionage essen 2015 essen 2016 essen 2017 essen 2018 essen 2019 essen 2022 essen 2023 existential risk falklands war fandom fanfic fantasy feminism film firefly first world war flash point flight simulation food garmin drive gazebo genesys geocaching geodata gin gkp gurps gurps 101 gus harpoon historical history horror hugo 2014 hugo 2015 hugo 2016 hugo 2017 hugo 2018 hugo 2019 hugo 2020 hugo 2021 hugo 2022 hugo 2023 hugo 2024 hugo-nebula reread in brief avoid instrumented life javascript julian simpson julie enfield kickstarter kotlin learn to play leaving earth linux liquor lovecraftiana lua mecha men with beards mpd museum music mystery naval noir non-fiction one for the brow opera parody paul temple perl perl weekly challenge photography podcast politics postscript powers prediction privacy project woolsack pyracantha python quantum rail raku ranting raspberry pi reading reading boardgames social real life restaurant reviews romance rpg a day rpgs ruby rust scala science fiction scythe second world war security shipwreck simutrans smartphone south atlantic war squaddies stationery steampunk stuarts suburbia superheroes suspense television the resistance the weekly challenge thirsty meeples thriller tin soldier torg toys trailers travel type 26 type 31 type 45 vietnam war war wargaming weather wives and sweethearts writing about writing x-wing young adult
Special All book reviews, All film reviews
Produced by aikakirja v0.1