Oct. 28, 2006
By Ben Beagle
What Julia Spencer-Fleming does to readers of her latest mystery, All Mortal Flesh, is nasty and diabolical. But for all the good reasons.
She lulls you into thinking the story is finished when the case is closed.
But don’t get complacent because , BAM! , she whacks you up side the head with a MAJOR TWIST.
It’s not the kind of thing you’re expecting from the mother of three who writes from a 185-year-old farmhouse near Portland, Maine. That is, writing when not chauffering the kids to cross country meets.
“I decided the ending was too conventional. So I started playing with things,” Spencer-Fleming said during a recent interview at Main Street Coffee, following a book signing at Richmond Memorial Library. “What I wanted was something that would really be shocking. I wanted it to come out of left field and be a real punch to the chest.
“You have to be willing to follow your characters and let bad things happen to them.”
Spencer-Fleming has taken readers on many twists and turns through her five mystery novels set in the fictional Adirondack town of Millers Kill. But this latest twist , and the repercussions it has for the burgeoning relationship between the Rev. Clare Fergusson and the town’s married police chief Russ Van Alstyne , is the most shocking.
That is what makes All Mortal Flesh such a compelling read, said Erica Caldwell, owner of Present Tense, a Batavia bookstore, where Spencer-Fleming’s novels have been popular.
“This book seems to raise the stakes a bit more in the series,” Caldwell said. “Spencer-Fleming’s plots have always had unexpected turns, which makes them so fun to read. But the events and intensity of this book take the whole series up a notch.”
‘Everything blows up’
All Mortal Flesh, released earlier this month, is the fifth book in the series starring the Rev. Clare Fergusson as an amateur sleuth.
“There’s a greater emotional depth to this novel than the earlier ones,” said Tori Reilly of Fairport, who came to Batavia for this month’s book signing. “That’s driven by the plot , this is Clare and Russ’s story, not just a local murder they are both trying to solve.”
The relationship between Fergusson, a well-intentioned Episcopal priest with a tendency to leap into situations before thinking them through, and Russ Van Alstyne, the married police chief of Millers Kill, is hardly a secret in their small town.
They first met four books ago on a cold December night when a newborn was abandoned on the steps of Clare’s church.
Since then, they’ve nearly drowned, crashed in a helicopter, and frequently meet for lunch on Wednesdays at a local diner. An undercurrent through the previous books, the unresolved romantic tension is the focal point of this new story.
When the police chief’s wife is murdered, suspicions turn to them.
Russ must deal with the apparent murder of his wife, the pressure to find the killer, and the ordeal of being the state police’s chief suspect.
Naturally, Clare wants to help. But her own life is upended as she struggles with the authority of her church, the law, and her own heart.
“It’s almost as if I had been laying mines throughout the first four books, and in this one they go off. Everything blows up in their faces,” Spencer-Fleming said. “Now we’ll see if they can walk out of the rubble.”
Catching up with friends
Readers in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties were introduced to Spencer-Fleming and Millers Kill during the 2005 “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project. The program featured the author’s debut novel, In the Bleak Midwinter, published in 2002.
Her other books have also been embraced by area readers.
“I find her books are like being with an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. Reading them is like catching up with the people in town,” said Linda Daviau of Batavia, who has read three of the previous books and is about one-third of the way through All Mortal Flesh.
Such popularity has helped each new book in the series do better than its predecessor, according to Peter Wolverton, associate publisher of St. Martin’s imprint Thomas Dunne Books.
The publisher was already planning a campaign to increase Spencer-Fleming’s profile among readers with the publication of All Mortal Flesh. Those plans began in the spring with the release of all her previous titles as mass market paperbacks. The new book, already into a second printing, saw a significantly larger initial print run, a spiffy new cover with the author’s name big and bold, and increased marketing support.
“That was all Julia recognizing what readers want,” Wolverton said. “The beauty of working with an author like her is that she is so in touch with her audience, and so responsive. She knows what will satisfy readers.”
Very bad things
All Mortal Flesh is the most intense of the Millers Kill books. The fast-paced story is darker with more violence and more bad language than any of the previous books. Mutilated bodies found lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor have not been a part of Spencer-Fleming’s oeuvre.
“Very bad things happen to people we know. I wanted to make it real. Not in a voyeuristic sense, but in the horror of what happens,” Spencer-Fleming said.
“Part of the goal of a writer is to engender strong, stimulating emotions in your readers,” she said. “I love books that make me feel.”
So do, apparently, her readers. “This was a little shocking,” Daviau said. “I knew that something drastic had to happen for Clare and Russ’ relationship to continue.This is one thing right after another. I’m excited about what comes next.”
“It seemed like it was more graphic, that there was more violence. But I was not repulsed by it,” said Frances McNulty of Batavia, who has read three of the previous books. “I liked the book and enjoyed it. I’m glad I read it.”
Leslie DeLooze, the Richmond librarian who started the “Tale” project, is not sure Clare and Russ are destined for a happy ending. “If we thought that they had their problems to deal with in the previous books, we know even more so now,” she said. “However it goes, I’m looking forward to the next books.”
Spencer-Fleming is working on book six. She plans to take the series through seven books. She knows how Clare and Russ’ relationship will end, but she must still answer other questions, such as whether Clare is really cut out to be a parish priest.
“That’s something the character will tell me,” Spencer-Fleming said.
“You have to keep the characters at arm’s length,” she said. “You don’t want them to be too perfect, and never protect them. I’m very close to Clare and Russ. You have to be able to get in their heads and their hearts. But you can never think they are so precious that life can’t come around and slap them silly.”
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation