Readers who like their mystery novels to feature priestly or monastic sleuths have a lot of choice these days. From G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, who appeared in 1910, to Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael and Phil Rickman’s the Reverend Merrily Watkins, the procession of godly gumshoes continues unabated. While most of these characters are Roman Catholic or Church of England, several Episcopalian sleuths have recently joined the ranks, and one of the most intriguing is the Reverend Clare Fergusson.
[pullquote]Julia Spencer-Fleming’s priest-sleuth is an ex-army helicopter pilot and liberal thinker. Her little parish of St. Alban’s Episcopal, in the rural town of Millers Kill , N.Y., is a conservative one.
In Spencer-Fleming’s first novel, In the Bleak Midwinter , the Reverend Clare discovers a baby abandoned on the church steps. In short order she shakes up the establishment, escapes a violent attempt on her life, solves a couple of murders and discovers that she is strongly attracted to the town’s married police chief. Somewhere in there she manages to get her parish work done as well, including Sunday services, sermons and pastoral care. In spite of this unlikely work-schedule the character is complex and likable, and this first novel is an entertaining page-turner.
A Fountain Filled With Blood is much darker than the first. The story centres around an escalating series of brutal attacks on gay people, culminating in murder. The author deals head-on with many of the sexuality issues that churches and secular communities the world over are currently debating, and she does not shirk the unlovely details. Several passages describing the actual violence are difficult to read, and possibly gratuitous, but by and large the handling of the subject matter is deft and humane.
The Reverend Clare acquits herself heroically in this novel, as in the first, though some of her heroics – the legacy of her army career, have the scent of deus ex machina about them. It isn’t every priest who can fly a chopper and beat up a bad guy. These attributes seem to attract trouble, which may be hard on the priest and her parishioners, but it’s good news for readers. One only hopes that she can hang on to her incumbency long enough for another book or two.
Mel Malton is a poet, artist and mystery writer in Huntsville Ont. Her third novel, One Large Coffin to Go, was released last month.“