By Tom Rivers, Daily News Staff Writer
LE ROY — Paul Letiecq knew he was getting a good read when picked up In the Bleak Midwinter, the latest ”A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project.
But Letiecq was treated to more than an interesting mystery. Letiecq, a retired Presbyterian pastor, said the story offers a realistic look at the life of a minister and small-town police work.
”It’s very authentic,” said Letiecq of Albion, who ate lunch Friday with the book’s author Julia Spencer-Fleming. ”It resonates with the church and a small community. It’s not totally fabricated.”
He was one of six winners of a book review contest judged by ”Tale” organizers. Spencer-Fleming joined the book review winners in light-hearted conversation for nearly two hours at the D&R Depot Restaurant in Le Roy.
The reviewers enjoyed the main character’s spunk and adventuresome spirit. In the book the Rev. Clare Fergusson is the new priest at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Millers Kill, a fictional upstate small-town set in the Adirondack Mountains.
Clare develops a close friendship with the police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, and together they unravel a murder mystery.
”Clare comes across as a real person and not a stained-glass caricature,” Letiecq said. ”The police chief is also real. He isn’t a pompous, know-it-all.”
Spencer-Fleming has followed Bleak Midwinter with three other books in the Clare Fergusson mystery series. The fourth book, To Darkness and to Death, is due in June.
Spencer-Fleming said she will try for six books about Clare. She also wants to try other mysteries. The lawyer-turned-author grew up on a military base in Plattsburgh. Her books, while fictional, touch on upstate small-towns’ economic struggles.
She weaves class warfare into her stories while examining the small-towns’ push to reinvent themselves into tourist attractions. The paper mills, lumber yards and manufacturing jobs have mostly dried up and left the communities years ago.
”Living in upstate New York is hard,” said Spencer-Fleming, who now lives near Portland, Maine. ”It’s hard in the Adirondacks and it’s probably hard here. The old industries are gone and they’re not coming back.”
The book review winners gave Spencer-Fleming an earful on Le Roy’s most notable business loss. Although the community is the birthplace of Jell-O, the dessert hasn’t been packaged locally for four decades.
The review winners — Letiecq, Frances McNulty of Batavia, Joyce Thompson-Hovey of Pavilion, Dave Stevens of Le Roy, Ann Burlingham of Perry and Linda Daviau of Batavia — also offered some plot suggestions and book title names for Spencer-Fleming.
Stevens, a retiree from Kraft Foods in Avon, shared about the notorious Linden Murders, the five unsolved killings in Genesee County between 1917 and 1924. He thought Spencer-Fleming could have Fergusson solve similar crimes from years ago.
Stevens also had title tips from some hymns, which Spencer-Fleming uses as titles in her series on Fergusson.
Spencer-Fleming, after listening to the suggestions, made her own recommendation: the group of reviewers should form their own mystery writers’ club.
She shared about her busy schedule speaking and promoting books. Her favorite visits include libraries. She said she happy to be the third ”Tale” author because it helps generate excitement for the rural libraries in the counties of Genesee, Wyoming and Orleans.
”I try to do a lot of libraries,” Spencer-Fleming said about her schedule. ”I owe a lot to libraries. If I had to buy I all of the books I’ve read, I wouldn’t have a dime to my name.”
The winning reviewers were picked by a committee of 12 people, who read the reviews without knowing the names of the writers. The committee picked the top six of 13 submissions.
Linda Daviau, a third-grade Elba teacher, has participated in all of the ”Tale” reading projects. She also has read all three of Spencer-Fleming’s books. Daviau wrote a review to follow the writing mantra she preaches to her students.
”I wrote to set an example for the kids because writing is becoming a bigger part of the curriculum,” she said.
Daviau said she also enjoyed the conversation with Spencer-Fleming. The author said she doesn’t watch TV, roots hard for the Boston Red Sox and relies on an old-fashioned dictionary.
Her career switch to writing also has given her more time in the day to spend with her husband and their three children.
Writing books, especially seeing the final hardcover in print, also is a thrill, Spencer-Fleming said.
”I was very happy when the first book came out,” she said. ”It was like holding your newborn.”
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation