Saturday, February 5, 2011

I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer-Fleming

I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 2008

Unlike many people, I can't get much enjoyment out of a book that's solely designed to get a couple together. As a whole, the actual romance genre holds little appeal for me. Maybe it's the predictability, or the hackneyed storylines, or the lurid covers.

Literary romance, at its best, is an additive, a spice that flavors a story that would be interesting on its merits anyway. I've read a lot of fantastic novels with romance as a main element and there are a lot of fictional couples that I love (I'm looking at you, Jamie and Claire Fraser), but very few come close to Julia Spencer-Fleming's mystery series. The woman knows her way around mystery, too, but it's the sizzling relationship between her two leads that really make her series special.

I Shall Not Want, the series' sixth installment, had to follow in the footsteps of the dazzlingly good fifth book, a novel so good that I would have assumed that it was near-impossible to top.

Well, ISNW comes damned close, even surpassing its predecessor in some ways. It's definitely the second-best of the series, both a tight, entertaining mystery and an incredibly effective romance.

As the book opens, Russ and Clare are still reeling from the death of Russ's wife. Neither is sure where their relationship is destined to go, but they are brought together by the discovery of three dead Latino men. The public begins to suspect there is a serial killer on the loose in Millers Kill and--natch--it's Russ and Clare who have to put the pieces together before someone else ends up dead.

This is a mystery novel that doesn't even really need a mystery. Spencer-Fleming's world and her detailed cast of characters are plenty engaging on their own. Over the course of five books, she's quietly built up a web of connections, secrets and recurring elements (who doesn't love Sterling Sumner and his ubiquitous scarf?). In this volume, a new major player gets added: untried rookie officer Hadley Knox.

Hadley is a likable addition on her own, but Spencer-Fleming hits a goldmine of awesomeness when she pairs her with Kevin Flynn, the goofy second-youngest cop on the force. Kevin has always been a stealthily wonderful supporting character and he's utterly delightful when given a bigger role. Watch for this subplot to become a highlight of future books.

The novel's actual mystery plot is, as always, solidly entertaining. It's not one of Spencer-Fleming's most ingenious stories and there's a laid back, unhurried feel to it (which couldn't be farther from the last book). The climax is excellent, though, and, besides, the focus is really more on the characters and the central romance.

And that central romance gets pleasantly steamy, too. After dragging out the tension between Clare and Russ so long (they didn't even kiss until the third book), Spencer-Fleming can finally let them be a real couple:

He dug his fingers into her hair and pulled her to him, kissing her, deep, hungry kisses that tasted of chocolate and peppermint. She moaned in the back of her throat and wrestled her hands free from around his waist to twine them about his neck. He bumped against the kitchen table and bent her back, kissing her, kissing her, her mouth and her jaw and the pulse trip-hammering in her throat. He felt something huge and powerful racing through him, sparking every nerve end, blanking out everything in the world except Clare, the taste of her, the sound of her, panting and gasping, the feel of her, oh, God, better than anything he had ever fantasized, as he yanked open her pajama top and pushed it aside and touched her, touched, touched her.

She cried out, and he shut her mouth with more kisses, wet and dark, remembering they had to keep quiet even though he couldn't remember why. She pushed at him, tugging at his shirt, and he reared back, taking her with him, the two of them standing hip to hip and toe to toe, frantic to remove his uniform blouse without letting any space or light or air between them. She undid the two top buttons and he yanked the shirt off over his head, tossing it on the table, and it was
Clare, warm and alive and half naked in his arms. His eyes nearly rolled back in his head from the feel of her skin on his.---(page 126)

Ahem. So it's clear that the Russ/Clare fireworks are alive and kicking. Their relationship has always been the heart of the series and it doesn't look like the intensity is going to let up anytime soon.

More and more as this series progresses, we can see the easy superiority of Spencer-Fleming. These books are so much more than mere whodunits; they're smart, literate stories of human passion. Spencer-Fleming's dialogue and description get better and better and her characterizations get sharper and sharper. I Shall Not Want is a lot more than just a mystery novel. It's rich, moving and thrilling. I can't wait for the next one.

NEXT UP: Either The Brothers Karamazov or David McCullough's celebrated biography John Adams.

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