RogerBW's Blog

Out of the Deep I Cry, Julia Spencer-Fleming 21 June 2023

2004 mystery, third in its series. Back in 1930, Jonathan Ketchem left his wife and was never seen again. Now someone else has gone missing from the small town of Miller's Kill.

OK, so this is book three, it's a little over a year in internal chronology since the first one, and this is the third twiddly complicated mystery that's happened in this small town. All right, nobody gives an actual population figure, and all right, it's something of a genre convention, but it feels a bit high even at the current US rate of 6.5 intentional homicides per 100,000 population per year. (After all, most intentional homicides aren't twiddly complicated ones.) Perhaps because this is trying to be a realistic series, it irritated me here in a way it doesn't with the more fantastic world of a Phryne Fisher (who solves dozens of murders in a year, though she also moves about a lot more).

There's a long run-up to the actual killing anyway, as Reverend Ferguson looks for funds to repair the church roof, and accepts a donation before she realises it'll also de-fund the local free clinic (ah, American health-care). Flashbacks to events around the disappearance in 1930 are intended more or less to parallel the contemporary research she finds herself doing, initially to try to work out just where the Ketchem family money came from; but this doesn't quite fit together, because the flashbacks (written as though by a contemporaneous observer) have more detail than is in the records that Ferguson is reading, while sometimes she states as fact something that hasn't yet been in a flashback at all.

At the same time, we have Ferguson and van Alstyne trying to be just friends and deny their True Love for each other (after all, he's married, and it's a gossipy small town even if they aren't doing anything Bad). Which, well, I don't know Episcopalians, but I think the concept of "occasions of sin" (which I met growing up Catholic) would surely be part of her training: if you are being tempted, you stay out of the situation where that's happening, and if that means you need to leave the town, you're supposed to rate the damage to your priestly career as less important than the likelihood of falling into sin. Of course real priests break this rule all the time, but I feel it ought at least to be in Clare's mental landscape, even if she's disagreeing with it.

Still, it's enjoyable, and makes use of the environment rather than being a generic plot plonked down in this particular setting. On the other hand there's a minor character who's an anti-vaxer from back when anti-vaxers were weirdo figures of mockery. That hasn't aged well; nor has the suggestion that what she has is basically a religious conviction, i.e. in the teeth of the evidence, so it would be wrong to try to force her out of it.

Not great, but also not completely adhering to the format of a generic cosy mystery, so it's at least not great in an individualistic way.

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Previous in series: A Fountain Filled With Blood | Series: Fergusson-Van Alstyne | Next in series: To Darkness and to Death

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