In The Bleak Midwinter

[openbook booknumber=”0312288476″][rating:4/5]

It’s a cold, snowy December in the upstate New York town of Millers Kill, and newly ordained Clare Fergusson is on thin ice as the first female priest of its small Episcopal church. The ancient regime running the parish covertly demands that she prove herself as a leader. However, her blunt manner, honed by years as an Army pilot, is meeting with a chilly reception from some members of her congregation, and Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne, in particular, doesn’t know what to make of her or how to address, “a lady priest,” for that matter.

The last thing she needs is trouble, but that is exactly what she finds. When a newborn baby is abandoned on the church stairs and a young mother is brutally murdered, Clare has to pick her way through the secrets and silence that shadow the town like the ever-present Adirondack mountains. As the days dwindle down and the attraction between the avowed priest and the married police chief grows, Clare will need all her faith, tenacity, and courage to stand fast against a killer’s icy heart.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I loved the setting, I loved the characters, I loved how the storyline pulled me in and didn’t let me go until the last page was turned. It had unique characters, well researched back story, and of course a killer on the loose to help spice things up as the death toll keeps climbing. Between the mystery and suspense surrounding this small baby abandoned on a church door step, to the believable relationship and build up between Reverend Clare and Chief Alystyne (will they? won’t they?) it ended up being quite a page turner and I was up late into the night on several occasions because I could not put this book down.

Russ decided the best defense was a good offense. “I’m Russell Van Alstyne, Millers Kill chrief of police.” He held out his hand. She shook firm, like a guy.
       “Clare Fergusson,” she said. “I’m the new priest at Saint Alban’s. That’s the Episcopal Church. At the corner of Elm and Church.” there was a faint testiness in her voice. Russ relaxed a fraction. A woman priest. If that didn’t beat all.
       “I know which it is. There are only four churches in town.” He saw the fog creeping along the edges of his glasses again and snatched them off, fishing for a tissue in his pocket. “Can you tell me what happened, um…” What was he supposed to call her? “Mother?”
       “I go by Reverend, Chief. Ms. is fine, too.”
       “Oh. Sorry. I never met a woman priest before.”
       “We’re just like the men priests, except we’re willing to pull over and ask directions.”

My own mother-in-law is a pastor and so I have some up close and personal experience with the special problems and situations a female member of the clergy can experience in relations to her church and the community. I loved how well researched that aspect was. Everything from how church meetings can be, to how it is visiting shut ins, from marriage counseling to community outreach to last rites was all done realistically and believably. I found myself laughing out loud at the members of the council complaining when Clare runs roughshod over their meeting with her agenda saying things like: we always do this on Wednesdays not today, we always do things in this order, we never do outreach like this, etc. That is very, very like most churches. They never have a good reason (efficiency, sanctity, fiscal responsibility) for why they do things, the reason is almost always just that this is how it’s always been done. My favorite line is when she complains to herself that hiring a female pastor was probably going to be the most risque thing they were going to do for the next ten years. Again, that is spot on with a lot of churches.

I also loved the description and the setting of this small town in New York. There were times when I was literally shivering in cold along with the characters. The way everything from the snow, to the wind, to the temperature was very well described and painted a backdrop that made you want to reach for a blanket every time. The characters also were very well done and each had their own individuality, I loved how with just a few lines everyone from an old shut in who is more than meets the eye, to a dirty child playing in a trashy yard was brought to vivid life. And, all of the characters were shown as the deeply complex people that we are, deep secrets, conflicting motives, desires, fears and all.

Some things bothered me though. Like how a pastor in any church was going to be able to have so much free time right around Christmas time, one of the busiest times of years for members of the clergy. Despite all of the planning and sermon writing and decorating and getting ready for the holiday she still had lots of time to spend with the Police Chief and getting into all sorts of trouble with this baby that was abandoned on her church doorstep and the mystery and murders that follow it. Granted she was ex-military so perhaps that explains some of her actions. She doesn’t just feel obligated as a member of the clergy in the community but also feels impelled by her training in the military as well. I know that at least shines through in some parts.

The other thing worrying me a little was the budding understanding and almost romance between Clare and Russ, especially considering he is a married man. I will say this though, after reading so much YA romance, with poor relationship building, the very real relationship that is depicted between Clare and Russ based on actual experiences, trust and mutual understanding was very nice to read about. I won’t say much more on this subject but will say that it will be interesting seeing how things develop and unfold throughout the rest of this series as, yes, this is the first in a series of mysteries that centers around Clare and Russ.

In spite of and through all of that I really enjoyed reading In The Bleak Midwinter and am looking forward to the next book in the series. I really enjoyed this mystery, and all of the wonderful twists and turns the story took. I ended up being totally surprised by the ending, though that was in some small part because I wasn’t paying nearly enough attention to certain characters in the beginning to realize their importance by the end, though now that I look back it was being hinted at all along! I love mysteries that do that!

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