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In the Bleak Midwinter    by Julia Spencer-Fleming order for
In the Bleak Midwinter
by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback
* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

It is always fun to discover a new mystery author and Spencer-Fleming comes well-recommended as a nominee for this year's Malice Domestic Best First Mystery award. The author has created an unusual new sleuth in young Claire Ferguson, who is the newly ordained Episcopal minister in the small upstate New York town of Millers Kill. Claire brings to her new life a past as an Army pilot. This combination of a religious calling and a tough military background makes for an intriguing heroine.

As the book opens, southerner Claire has just moved to Millers Kill and is experiencing how truly awful northern winters can be. Spencer-Fleming has obviously lived through such seasons and the bleak, freezing atmosphere permeates the novel. One night early in her stay, Claire discovers an abandoned infant boy outside the church with a note asking that the baby be given to a parishioner couple. Police chief Russ Van Alstyne is called in, and Claire teams up with him to track down the baby's parents. In an effort to learn more about her parish, Claire accompanies Russ one night on patrol, and they find the baby's mother murdered beside a frozen stream. Now they must find out why she was killed and by whom. Millers Kill suddenly is not the peaceful haven Claire had anticipated.

Claire's priestly desire to care for others makes her a natural sleuth, as she looks into the murder. Unfortunately the self-confidence derived from her military experience sometimes makes her impulsive and she foolhardily forges into dangerous situations. Van Alstyne and Claire continue to work together and start to develop a close friendship and a growing attraction. It will be very interesting to see how Spencer-Fleming handles the fact that Van Alstyne is married in future books.In the Bleak Midwinter has generated good buzz in the mystery community as a promising debut, and future episodes are eagerly anticipated.

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