By Ben Beagle, Daily News Lifestyles Editor
BATAVIA — Julia Spencer-Fleming, author of a novel set against a brutally cold Adirondack winter, was warmly received at a talk and book-signing Thursday night at Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St.
Her mystery novel, In the Bleak Midwinter, was “a bright spot to our winter,” said Leslie DeLooze, the reference and community services librarian at Richmond who started the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project three years ago.
About 120 people attended Thursday evening’s program, the second of four author presentations. Earlier Thursday, about 70 people listened to Spencer-Fleming discuss her work at Genesee Community College, where she also had a morning writing workshop with students.
“A Tale for Three Counties” has people in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties reading the same book, discussing it and then talking about it with the author during visits which continue through Saturday.
Some readers, such as Mary Scoins of West Batavia, were turned on to mysteries for the first time. While Scoins said she likes to watch procedural crime dramas such as Law & Order, 24 or cable’s Cold Case Files, her reading choices tended toward more romantic novels.
Scoins found a story with In the Bleak Midwinter that bridged those interests.
“I can’t wait to read more,” she said. “I liked the ‘whodunit’ and why, but then there are these two major characters that I want to learn more about,” she said.
In the Bleak Midwinter introduces Clare Fergusson, the newly-ordained priest at conservative St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Millers Kill, and explores the delicate relationship that develops between her and the married police chief as they investigate an abandoned baby and multiple murders.
“I was totally captivated. I loved the strength and depth of the characters, and especially liked that the main character was a woman,” said Meg Martin of Batavia, an English instructor at GCC’s Albion campus, who began reading mysteries as a diversion from her dissertation on novelist Henry James.
George Porter of Batavia spent every free moment in recent days reading the book. He finished the last few chapters Wednesday night. “The characters just keep pulling you in,” he said
Thursday evening, Spencer-Fleming shared the story of her unlikely route from aspiring author to someone with a book contract. While home on maternity leave, the former lawyer won a national writing contest that led to publication of her first book. Soon, she had contracts for three more books — even before she had an agent.
Her husband, then working as a lawyer, was suspicious “… until the first check came,” Spencer-Fleming said, getting the first of several rounds of laughter from the library’s packed Reading Room.
Martin said she was “really surprised and delighted by (Spencer-Fleming’s) sense of humor.”
Spencer-Fleming later drew chuckles when recounting how a rather distinguished-looking priest asked her to sign his copy of her book with “To Skippy,” and explaining how the title of her second book, A Fountain Filled with Blood, was changed from Just As I Am.
“The marketing people said that sounded too much like a self-help book. They said, ‘Can you come back with a more lurid title?’ ” Spencer-Fleming said.
Spencer-Fleming explained that she had characters before she had a plot, writing lengthy biographies for Clare and Russ. “So I know all sorts of things about them that you don’t,” she said.
The characters’ relationship is central to the series, and allows the story to retain a level of tension even as the mystery may slow to allow characters to react and reflect on the case, the author said.
Spencer-Fleming also answered questions about her grandmother’s influence, which is reflected in the advice Clare recalls for her grandmother; how she researched her books, why the series will likely end after six books, and why she made Clare a priest.
“The practical benefit of having a cleric as an amateur detective is to get over the Nancy Drew problem of why is this person, who is not paid by the state, investigating these deaths,” Spencer-Fleming said, noting that priests often fill a social services role helping people in times of crisis.
About 70 people attended the afternoon program at GCC, with about half of those coming from outside the college community. As Spencer-Fleming talked about her book, she kept a small box of Jell-O on top of the lectern.
“I decided that the next novel I’ll do, I’ll have someone die in a vat of Jell-O,” said Spencer-Fleming, who hoped to visit Le Roy’s Jell-O Museum today.
Tracy Burke, 21, of Leicester, Livingston County, said she liked the book and enjoys studying poetry and short stories. “I like the good versus evil and how evil is conquered in the book,” the communications major, said. “I’m learning to absorb other people’s styles and becoming better at it.”
“A Tale for Three Counties” continues today with winners of a book review contest having lunch with the author, and a 7 p.m. talk and booksigning at Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, 620 West Ave., Medina. On Saturday, Spencer-Fleming will present a program at 2 p.m. in the auditorium at Perry Elementary/Middle School, 50 Olin Ave., Perry, a program hosted by the Perry Public Library.
(Includes additional reporting by Daily News correspondent Todd Fielding.)
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation