A view into the Kill Julia Spencer-Fleming ups the action in sixth Fergusson mystery

Aug. 9, 2008
Books & Authors, The (Batavia, N.Y.) Daily News
By Ben Beagle

Current events inspired the latest mystery in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s fictional Adirondack community of Millers Kill.

I Shall Not Want developed from the Maine author’s discovery that even average-sized Northeast dairy farms are increasingly dependent on migrant workers to do hard, often demanding work.

“It’s the sign of a good story idea, when it latches in your head and won’t go away,” Spencer-Fleming said in a telephone interview from her home in Buxton, Maine.

From that initial idea, Spencer-Fleming added multiple murders, drugs and the ongoing saga that is the relationship between the series’ trouble-finding Episcopal priest and the town’s police chief.

Spencer-Fleming, featured in the 2005 “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project, will talk about I Shall Not Want and the series’ final book Friday during “An Evening with Julia Spencer-Fleming” at Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St., Batavia.

The event, which includes dinner, a reading, talk and book signing, is a fundraiser for the reading project organized by public libraries in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. It will be Spencer-Fleming’s third visit to the area.

Spencer-Fleming and her debut novel In the Bleak Midwinter introduced readers to Millers Kill, where the Rev. Clare Fergusson and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne have navigated mysteries and their own relationship through six books.

The fifth book, All Mortal Flesh, left Clare and Russ mired in the most miserable conditions imaginable, and Clare – a former Army helicopter pilot – returning to military service through the National Guard.

“One of the appeals, is how this relationship has moved a long way from where it started,” said Leslie DeLooze, the Richmond Memorial librarian who started the Tale project. “Each chapter is sort of a cliffhanger. You don’t want to know how it ends too soon. You want to enjoy the trip.”

While readers have frequently said they are drawn to the books by the protagonists’ relationship, they also noted how Spencer-Fleming has upped the action ante with each successive book.

I Shall Not Want opens with a hostage situation and a dramatic shootout. Spencer-Fleming then jumps back six months and before long the body of the first of three murdered immigrants is found and a downstate drug gang is discovered operating in the area.

While not done consciously, the more she writes the more frequent and intense the action in her books.

“I think probably it has more to do with my evolution as a writer,” she said. “I feel more comfortable with the fact that I’m writing the type of book I want to write. It doesn’t fit within certain genre parameters. There are bits that are like a cozy or a thriller or a mystery. I think when I started out, I was more worried that this is a traditional mystery and had to be written a certain way. Now, I write the story I want.”

In her fictional town, the issues are often similar to what might be found in a real-life community. Spencer-Fleming has explored topics such as land development, deforestation and gay bashing.

“Literally, I just start writing. I don’t go back, don’t rewrite” until the end, she said, reflecting advice she gave students in the master’s writing class she taught this year at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham, Maine.

“When you get to the end,” she said, “then you can start painting and spackling and making it look nice.”

Spencer-Fleming, who started out as a personal injury lawyer (like in those firms you see on TV), began her writing career after winning a contest for new writers through St. Martin’s Press. She has gone on to be nominated for or win several major awards in the mystery genre, including a 2007 Nero for best mystery (All Mortal Flesh).

I Shall Not Want, released in June, spent several weeks in the top 30 of The Indie Bestsellers, a list compiled by the American Booksellers Association.

The mystery and plot of each book has been largely self-contained so new readers don’t need to know previous books. The series is best read in order, though, as Spencer-Fleming often has characters reference previous events and build on existing relationships.

Due in summer or fall 2009, the seventh book will explore what happens when National Guardsmen from a small town return from a lengthy tour in Iraq. The story is expected to center on a group of veterans, including Clare, who meet at a therapy group. When one of the group members is found dead, Clare and the others don’t believe it is a suicide.

“It’s really been an issue that has intrigued me,” Spencer-Fleming says. “These guys experience this incredible, maybe traumatic, life-changing disruption of going away for a year or more and then coming back to a small town where they’re expected to pick up their lives, their jobs.”

In writing the book, she has been reading first-hand accounts of soldiers, veterans and families, often through blogs, or online Web logs. She has also spoken with veterans, including a chaplain who has counseled returning troops.

After book seven, Spencer-Fleming will turn her attention to a story set around the closing of Maine State Prison (while leaving a sliver of hope she may one day revisit Millers Kill).

“I think authors know they can’t keep going once they have resolved a relationship like that,” said Catherine Nestor, a Spencer-Fleming fan from Batavia planning to attend the upcoming dinner. “I’m a romantic. I want them to finally get together.” —
AUTHOR VISIT: “An Evening with Julia Spencer-Fleming” begins with a buffet dinner at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St., Batavia. Spencer-Fleming will follow with a reading, talk and book signing. Tickets, which cost $30, are available at Richmond Memorial Library, Alfred C. O’Connell Library at Genesee Community College, 1 College Rd., Batavia; Perry Public Library, 70 North Main St., Perry; and Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, 620 West Ave., Medina. Copies of Spencer-Fleming’s latest book, I Shall Not Want, and three of her previous titles will be available for purchase.

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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