Sunday, November 15, 2009

Claire Ferguson and Russ Van Alstyne: my new obsession

A few weeks ago I was browsing the audio section of my library looking for something to listen to in the car since once again I am burned out on NPR and didn't yet have The List for musical diversion.

I remembered a mystery series that a fellow blogger had recommended (remind me who likes this series, because much as I've searched the blogs I frequent, I can't find out where I heard about it), and so got the first book in the Claire Ferguson/Russ Van Alstyne mysteries by Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter (A Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mystery).

As a genre, I like mysteries from time to time, but do get burnt out on them as it's easy for them to get formulaic. The twist on this series is that Claire is an Anglican priest in a small town in upstate New York, and she is one tough, but attractive cookie, having been a helicopter pilot in the army during Desert Storm. She's single, driven, passionate, interesting, and compassionate. Russ is a good 15 years her senior, a VietNam vet turned chief of police. Married, driven, passionate, interesting, and compassionate. They hit it off. Sparks fly.

If I sound like I'm hooked, I am...but it took a little while to set the bait. First, the reader of the audio book was very irritating--I couldn't stand her Russ voice or her teen girl voice, and almost stopped listening because of that. Next, while I loved the premise of the story, I predicted almost each plot point at least a couple of pages before it was revealed, and I really hate feeling smug about being smarter than the author. Third, the characters had some verbal ticks that drove me up the wall (e.g., if Russ says "scuze my French" one more time after uttering the mildest of expletives, I think I may have to scream). Last, this book was published in 2003, when cell phones were not a novelty anymore but an appendage of everyone from kindergartners to grandmothers, and yet neither Russ nor Clare had one and relied on using landlines, when they could find them.

But, despite all this, their darned, doomed attraction for each other is so primal that I finished the audio book on the way to the library to pick up the second in the series, A Fountain Filled With Blood (A Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mystery), which I devoured this weekend. I'm heading up to the library tomorrow to pick up Out of the Deep I Cry (A Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mystery), third in the series. TBR list, you can wait, I need to find out if Russ leaves Linda for Claire, or if Claire starts to date in order to get over Russ, or if they can still be friends even though the whole town must be really talking about them by now.

I fully acknowledge that the series' angsty longing is driving my new obsession, I honestly think that the second novel is better than the first. The whodunit part was more masterly put together, and I loved the fact that the ending wasn't exactly tidy...a little like real life isn't exactly tidy with clean resolutions to thorny issues. And Russ is cutting down on the "Scuze my French"s and reading it is infinitely better than listening to a grating voice butcher a sensitive tough guy's voice. We're also seeing more of the town and its inhabitants, which increases overall credibility of the story and setting. And I know I'm going to like Russ's mom, Margy, who made a brief appearance in the second book, and who is another tough cookie with as much insight into the workings of the human heart as Claire.

The other thing I like about the series is that we aren't given the full backstory of the main characters right off the bat. I don't want to continue reading just to know whether Russ and Claire get together, but also to learn more about who they are and how they got to be who they are. I learned a little more about their histories in the second book, and I expect to be doled out a few more tantilizing tidbits in the third book.

I have to say, Julia Spencer-Fleming knows how to write a series, at least based on the first two books.


  1. I'm off now to see if our library has this. One of the annoying things I'm discovering about audio books,however, is that a good many are not available in the UK.

  2. I am just obsessed with this series. When I was studying for the bar exam and working closely with Barnes & Noble's buying staff in NY, I told them how difficult it was for me to stop reading for fun even at the most critical time of my life to study nonstop but that I was doing my best. Then the mystery buyer handed me a forthcoming JSF galley and I stayed up all night reading it! Realizing she was a lawyer, I even went to her website and sent her a long message at dawn but got no reply (although she did add me to her mailing list). I can't say her plots are all that great but the series still fascinates me and Claire is a great character.