Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review: Julia Spencer-Fleming's Through the Evil Days

Through the Evil Days.  Julia Spencer-Fleming.  November 5, 2013.  Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Press, NYC.  ISBN: 978-0-312-60684-8.  355 Pages.

In our twenty-first century American culture, we have a dearth of female archetypes.  I have heard it said that we have only the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene.  Spencer-Fleming’s eighth traditional mystery novel gives us new one.  Rev. Clare Fergusson, now married to Police Chief Van Alstyne, and five months pregnant with their child, ends up, during their delayed January honeymoon in a remote part of upper New York state, fighting for her life, her baby’s, that of her husband Russ and eight-year-old Mikayla, a liver-transplant patient, who had been kidnapped and needs her medicine or she’ll die.  

What qualities characterize this new archetype?  An underlying compassion and toughness of spirit that won’t give up, plus common sense, and the ingenuity born of desperation.

The book opens with its main characters being handed a fistful of problems.  Clare has been asked to resign from her job as priest of the Millers Kill Episcopalian Church because the baby was conceived before she was married. This is not considered appropriate behavior for a priest. Clare refuses to pretend remorse. The pregnancy was unplanned, but Clare is determined to have the baby.  

Russ makes it clear he doesn’t want this child.  He feels they have already too much responsibility, and he thinks fifty-two is too old for him to start a family.  Then he learns that the town government is considering closing his police department and turning their work over to the New York state police.  The night before they are to leave for a remote cabin on a lake north of Millers Kill, a house burns down, and the couple inside die.  Their foster child, Mikayla, then goes missing.  The family’s dog, Oscar, is taken in by Clare, another thing Russ doesn’t like.
Then the ice storm of the century hits, puts out power and most phone service, and the police, in Russ’s absence, besides handling all the traffic snarls and accidents, are trying to find Mikayla before her new liver gives out.

The secondary plot involves the young policeman Kevin Flynn and his partner in the search for Mikayla, Hadley Knox.  Flynn loves Hadley, but she has been avoiding him until they are thrown together in this icy landscape to find Mikayla.

Julia Spencer-Fleming is one of my very favorite contemporary mystery authors.  We fans had to wait two and half years for this eighth one in her series, which comes after the New York Times best-seller, One Was a Soldier (April 2011).

In Write Away Elizabeth George says suspense is created for the reader when we care about the characters.  It’s not simply the threat of death or violence, though here there is plenty of that, too. Through the Evil Days engaged me and stirred my worry about the characters early, especially Clare.  She never was a conventional priest.  Now she has neither the church’s support nor her husband’s, and yet she maneuvers her way through crisis after crisis.  In doing so she becomes a model for other women in whatever difficulties they find themselves.  This book will haunt you, but you’ll be sorry to put it down.

Julia Spencer-Fleming, photo by Lisa Bowe (from website)


Julia Spencer-Fleming’s bio from her website

Bestselling author JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING is the winner of the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Dilys, Barry, Nero Wolfe, and Gumshoe Awards, and an Edgar and Romantic Times RC Award finalist. She was born at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, spending most of her childhood on the move as an army brat. She studied acting and history at Ithaca College, and received her J.D. from the University of Maine School of Law. She lives outside of Portland, Maine.

Most new mothers are lucky if they manage to fit in a shower and a hot meal immediately after the baby arrives. Julia Spencer-Fleming completed her award-winning first novel, In the Bleak Midwinter. “Virginia was born on August 19th, and I finished the book in a torrent of writing over Labor Day weekend,” she says. “Then I worked on rewrites and editing during the rest of my maternity leave. I’d have the nursing baby under one arm and the manuscript under the other.”

The usual route for a first time author is to secure an interested agent. But Spencer-Fleming was juggling two older children plus the new baby, a 180-year-old farmhouse in the Maine countryside, a dog, a cat, a husband, and a demanding legal practice. She didn’t have time to send out letter after letter to agents. “I found out about the St. Martin’s ‘Best First Novel’ contest a week before the deadline. I shipped out my manuscript on Halloween and told myself I didn’t have to do anything more to try to get published until they announced the winner in early April. I figured at least an editor would take a look at it, and maybe I’d get some good feedback.”

Instead, she got a call from legendary mystery editor Ruth Cavin informing her In the Bleak Midwinter had beaten out over two hundred and thirty other manuscripts to win the 2001 Best First Traditional Mystery Award. St. Martin’s, the country’s largest publisher of mysteries, has since 1989 sponsored “Best First” awards for private eye and traditional mysteries. Previous winners have gone on to collect Edgar, Anthony and Agatha awards and nominations.

Her editor describes the book as “an outstanding addition to our award-winners,” a judgement confirmed by the book’s outstanding reviews in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly and other major newspapers. As In the Bleak Midwinter’s print runs sold out again and again--it is now in its fifth printing-- St. Martin’s quickly signed the author to a two-book contract for a third and fourth in the series. Now she’s said good-bye to the law office and hello to the life of a full-time author.

Spencer-Fleming’s debut success owes much to its chillingly accurate portrayal of life and death in a small upstate New York town. “Millers Kill is an amalgam of the towns and villages that I knew as a child.” she says. “My family settled in the Adirondack Piedmont in the 1720s and I spent a lot of time tramping around those hills, hearing stories of Indian massacres and Revolutionary battles and eavesdropping on the small-town gossip about who was pregnant and whose dairy was failing. That part of New York, where poor farms and Saratoga money and the mountains all come together, has always held a bone-deep fascination for me.”

Along with the Millers Kill series, she has plans for a thriller involving a stand-off at a snow-bound prison. She says life in upstate New York and Maine has given her an affinity for wintery murder and mayhem. “You realize how snow and ice can rule your life. The weather, like any well-written villain, is both fascinating and deadly.”

1 comment:

  1. It's been so long that I've been waiting for this 8th book. I was beginning to think maybe she was ending the series with their marriage. I'll have to order that book. I met Julia Spencer-Fleming at Crime Bake right before her 7th book was coming out. I told her I was tired of waiting for it because it had been a while since the previous book had come out. She reached into a bag hand handed me an arc and signed it. I treasure that book. Long may she write. :-)