Thursday, August 5, 2010

Out of the Deep I Cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Out of the Deep I Cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 2004

Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series is currently six volumes long. I've read the first two books (2002's In the Bleak Midwinter and 2003's A Fountain Filled With Blood) and found them to be witty, tightly plotted whodunits with excellent action scenes and a compelling will-they-won't-they relationships between the central characters.

The third installment, Out of the Deep I Cry, elevates the series from a well-written series of mysteries to serious literature. Spencer-Fleming proves herself to be a really gifted writer with the novel's harrowing passages of passion and pain.

Clare Fergusson, reverend of an Episcopalian church in a small town in upstate New York, and Russ Van Alstyne the town's police chief, are the series' main characters. Even though Russ is married, the two are powerfully attracted to each other. Spencer-Fleming's subtle, sensitive portrayal of their relationship is a beautifully controlled feat of writing.

When a member of Clare's vestry draws on an old trust fund to repair the church's roof, Clare and Russ are drawn into the disappearance of a local doctor--a disappearance that eerily mirrors a similar one in 1930.

The mystery is unusual and far more intricate than your usual "body in the library" puzzle. The various suspects and possible motives are sharply drawn and clues are slipped in with the skill of a practiced author.

Flashbacks tell the complex story of the tragic Ketchem family, particularly the tormented matriarch Jane. The flashbacks are largely superb--historically accurate, emotionally moving and beautifully mirrored in the main story.

It's not many authors who can believably weave flashbacks from 1926 or 1950 into the narrative of a present-day novel, but the flashbacks work wonderfully, although a couple feel a tad long, as though they've been lengthened to pad the novel. Damn fine padding, though.

Spencer-Fleming's writing is sharp and crisp, her dialogue believable. Though she is not an author that lapses too often into poeticism,some of her passages have a luminous beauty:

And that ended his day's adventure. At least until that night, when he woke up his mother, yelling, from the first nightmare he could remember since he was ten. And in later years, even after he had walked, awake, through nightmares of men blown to a pulp and helicopters falling out of the sky, he still sometimes remembered the sensation of sinking into the cool dark water. The pale, withered face. The black, black eyes. And he would shiver. ---- (page 12)

Each book so far has featured a memorable action set piece at the novel's end. The first book had a thrilling cat-and-mouse game between Clare and a killer in the middle of a snowbound forest. The second book featured a helicopter crash. This book tops both of them with a terrific scene in which Clare and Russ are trapped in a flooding basement. After 350 pages of buildup, Spencer-Fleming is smart enough to know that readers want an action-packed climax.

The solution to the novel's central mystery is twisty and satisfying. Spencer-Fleming takes special care to make it emotionally satisfying, rather than just a simple shock ending.

And the wonderful twining of the novel's mystery plot and the relationship between Russ and Clare is ultimately the book's highlight. It's a balancing act that most writers struggle with, but Spencer-Fleming manages it with apparent ease.

With three future volumes in print and a fourth coming out in spring '11, there's plenty more to come from the series, which, with this installment, really makes the leap to greatness.

NEXT UP: I'll be reviewing Olympos, the second part of Dan Simmons's insanely strange and original Ilium/Olympos duology.

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