Mystery novel selected for Tale’s third year

By Ben Beagle, Daily News Lifestyles Editor

The “Tale” is afoot.

Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mystery In the Bleak Midwinter has been selected for the third edition of the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project.

The project, organized by libraries in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties, encourages people in those communities to read — and then discuss — the same book. The project culminates next March when Spencer-Fleming is scheduled to visit each county.

In the Bleak Midwinter is the first in a series — now three books long — that explores life in Millers Kill, a fictional small town in upstate New York. At the core of the story is Clare Fergusson, the new priest at a small Episcopalian church — who also happens to be an ex-Army helicopter pilot — and the delicate relationship she has with the police chief.

“It’s a little bit different than the other books we’ve chosen because it is a mystery. But that’s one of the most popular genres we have,” said Sue Border, director of Woodward Memorial Library, Le Roy, and one of the “Tale” organizers. “And this is a good read.”

As in past years, “Tale” will feature at least a dozen book discussions at area libraries throughout February and the first week of March and a book review contest. Spencer-Fleming will visit March 10, 11 and 12.

“We heard from people who said they wanted a female author,” said Leslie DeLooze, the reference and community services librarian at Richmond Memorial Library, Batavia, who has spearheaded the project since the beginning.

“And we found that writer,” DeLooze said. “She writes about New York state, has a great story, and an understanding of the climate very well.”

Next year’s author visits come a week earlier than past programs to avoid conflicts with Easter and spring vacations, DeLooze said.

Spencer-Fleming is scheduled to present evening programs March 10 at Richmond Memorial Library and March 11 at Lee-Whedon Memorial Library in Medina, and an afternoon session March 12 in the auditorium of Perry Elementary/Middle School.

In the Bleak Midwinter was the first novel for Spencer-Fleming, a former lawyer who now writes full time from her home in Saco, Maine.

The novel introduces readers to newly-ordained Clare Fergusson. As the first woman priest at the Episcopal church in Millers Kill, she gets a chilly reception from some members of her congregation upon her arrival.

(The author has said Millers Kill is an amalgam of the upstate towns she remembered from her childhood.)

Fergusson’s initial reception from the police chief is not much warmer when she finds a newborn baby abandoned on the church stairs. Later, it is discovered that the baby’s mother was brutally murdered.

As Fergusson and the chief, who is married, try to uncover what happened they find themselves becoming more attracted to each other.

Fergusson must use her faith, her training and good sense to sort through the silence and secrets of a small town.

Spencer-Fleming, the mother of three, was on maternity leave when she submitted her manuscript to a national contest. The prize was publication.

Her story beat out 230 other entries to win the 2001 best traditional mystery award from St. Martin’s Press and Malice Domestic. It was called one of the most outstanding winners the contest has every seen.

The novel went on to win several other awards, including a 2003 Agatha Award, one of the top prizes for mystery writers.

Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, said In the Bleak Midwinter was “a riveting page-turner from start to finish.”

“Tale” organizers hope the change of pace from its first two selections attracts more participants to the project.

“There are strong plots in mysteries, and that keeps the stories moving. Mysteries have a wide appeal,” said DeLooze, the Richmond librarian.

In the Bleak Midwinter and other books in the series are available for loan at area libraries, with more on the way. The libraries will eventually have copies to sell.

In Le Roy, Spencer-Fleming is already proving to be a popular read. All seven copies of In the Bleak Midwinter have been circulating non-stop for several weeks, Border, the library director, said.

“And when people come back,” she said, “they’re really excited and already going on to the next two.”

“Tale” sponsors include The Daily News, The Bank of Castile and Wal-Mart.

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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