Saturday, October 9, 2010

All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming

All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 2006

I recently met Julia Spencer-Fleming at a book festival. She was charming, witty and personable, and I was lucky enough to get two of my books autographed. Her Millers Kill series is truly superior mystery fiction, and All Mortal Flesh is the best one yet. It's a pretty incredible read.

During the previous four novels, Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson have faced down murderers, helicopter crashes, near-drowning and bombs. But the stories have all been crimes that they are investigating, not crimes that directly involve them.

The fifth installment changes that with its jolting shocker of a beginning: Russ's wife Linda is found murdered and mutilated in their home, mere weeks after the two of them seperated because of Russ's feelings for Clare.

Russ goes on the hunt for Linda's killer, aided by the increasingly guilty Clare. Things become even more complicated when a state policewoman becomes convinced that Russ is the murderer, forcing him to go on the run.

I really can't say anything more about the plot except that A) it would make Agatha Christie green with envy, B) it's stay-up-all-night-riveting and C) it delivers one shocking twist that ranks among the finest I've read in a contemporary mystery.

But, as always, it's the two main characters that really matter, and both Russ and Clare are in top form here. The two have emerged as such deep, well-rounded creations, and their relationship only gets more compelling and complex in this novel.

Making the novel revolve around Linda's death is a brilliant move. This is what fans of the series have been waiting for since the first book, but Spencer-Fleming masterfully demonstrates that this event can only push Russ and Clare farther apart.

The prose is better than ever, too. Spencer-Fleming brought her A-game to this novel and it shows. Russ finding out about his wife's murder:

The terrible thing was here. He felt himself crack open, his jaw unhinge, his lungs constrict. His field of vision shrank, and his head filled with a loud, dry-edged shuffle as his mind laid down every card in its deck. Linda relaxing in her favorite chair at the end of the day. The two of them shouting at each other over the hood of her car. A funeral--he had never planned a funeral, didn't know how to do it, didn't know who to call. Oh, God, he was going to grow feeble and old alone, without his wife, his beautiful wife. . .

The way it would feel, his finger tightening on the trigger as he pumped onetwothreefourfive rounds into her killer. Just like that.

Memory. Guilt. Confusion. Self-pity.

--(page 37)

The plot twists and turns until the teriffic climax, which brings the mystery to an unexpected and satisfying close. There's no over-the-top action, but it's an excellent conclusion. It's the shattering emotional moment that closes the novel that really leaves you hungry for the next installment, though.

All Mortal Flesh is a triumphant acheivment for Spencer-Fleming and the series. It's a pretty fantastic novel, from every angle. It's a wonderful mystery, but it's also a deep, insightful look at a tragic love triangle.

NEXT UP: The Hard Way, by Lee Child.

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