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My mother was a Roman Catholic and had all three of her children baptized as infants.

My step-mother was a Lutheran (before she discovered Ayn Rand) and insisted upon confirmation for all of the children. And so I was forced to attend catechism classes after school, memorizing the Apostles' Creed, (which I think I can still recite) while being condemned to eternal hellfire by the One True Church. You see, in those days, prior to Vatican II, the mere attendance at any other church was considered sinful for Catholics. And though I had never willingly attended a single mass, as a result of my infant baptism, I was still considered a Catholic by Rome.

My father, the atheist, didn't object to any of the indoctrination, only expressing mild dismay that on my Certificate of Confirmation, the Lutherans had spelt my middle name, Margaret, in the Scandinavian style, with only one "a."

I remember reading A Stranger in a Strange Land some weeks before I attended my last Lutheran service. That was the week that our Pastor used the text from I John 2:15-17 as the basis for his sermon on the evils of the flesh. The words that kept running through my virginal sixteen year old mind were Heinlein's: "If God hated flesh, why did He make so much of it?"

Reading, it is a dangerous thing.

I moved to San Francisco in 1973, and started volunteer work as a counselor in the Sexual Trauma Center, a joint effort of the Queen's Bench and the City of San Francisco in 1975. It was hard work done often in the middle of the night and since I lived near Central Emergency, I was usually the first call that the staff made (probably because I rarely said no) when a victim was admitted for evidence collection. I would accompany the victim, be a shoulder to cry on, but mostly a nonjudgemental ear to listen to his/her tale, providing a quiet few moments, a cup of coffee and the knowledge that he or she was not alone. We would make referrals for follow up care, call family or friends if desired, and generally try to make sure that the victim was provided with whatever was needed.

The hard part of the job was not the interruption or the lack of sleep, it was all emotional; the pain, the cruelty, and the guilt we heard of was draining. Which is why I found myself on the doorstep of the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco on Sunday, January 11, 1976. A beautiful Gothic Revival-Romanesque sandstone building on the outside, inside the sanctuary had a lightness unexpected, and the rich sound of a magnificent organ. The sermon that morning was based on W.C. Fields. It did not take me long to decide to do the study required and to join this Church. Voluntarily.

There are times when I sorely miss that Church. I don't think I ever left it without feeling a little lighter in spirit and a little richer in joy. When our minister, David O Rankin, published So Great a Cloud of Witnesses, I was one of the first in line at the local bookstore to buy it. I have it still.

Coming from that background, I tend to eschew the the doctrinal teachings of mainstream religions. Questions of immaculate conception, original sin, life after death and what kind of a god allows war, really don't concern me very much. Far more important to my mind and heart is how we treat each other.

And that is why I found Anne Perry's WWI novels boring and Julia Spencer-Fleming's Claire Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series enchanting.

As an Episcopalian Priest, and former Army combat helicopter pilot, Clare Fergusson spends more of her time solving crimes than absolving parishioners of their sins. That is okay with me because her faith does not play a big role in the novels though it is clearly a big part of who the character is. Smart, funny, introspective and caring, Clare Fergusson reminds me of the religious liberals I have known and worked with in the past.

Russ Van Alstyne reminds me of men I know in the present. Salt of the earth police chief with a bigger heart than he wishes known and so protects with a thin veneer of cynicism, he returned to his home town of Millers Kill after serving in the Army and has remained there ever since, married to the most beautiful woman in town.

Julia Spencer-Fleming "was juggling two older children plus the new baby, a 180-year-old farmhouse in the Maine countryside, a dog, a cat, a husband, and a demanding legal practice" while she wrote In the Bleak Midwinter. Lacking the time to find an agent to market her new first novel, she submitted it to St. Martin's 2001 Best First Traditional Mystery Contest. Not only did she win the Award and a contract from St Martin's Press, she won the Agatha, the Anthony, the Macavity, the Dilys and the Barry Awards for In the Bleak Midwinter.

In this first novel of the series, we are introduced to the two main characters in the town hospital where Clare has taken the small baby she found abandoned on the stairs of her church.

“Russ decided the best defense was a good offense. “I’m Russell Van Alstyne, Millers Kill chrief of police.” He held out his hand. She shook firm, like a guy.

“Clare Fergusson,” she said. “I’m the new priest at Saint Alban’s. That’s the Episcopal Church. At the corner of Elm and Church.” there was a faint testiness in her voice. Russ relaxed a fraction. A woman priest. If that didn’t beat all.

“I know which it is. There are only four churches in town.” He saw the fog creeping along the edges of his glasses again and snatched them off, fishing for a tissue in his pocket. “Can you tell me what happened, um...” What was he supposed to call her? “Mother?”

“I go by Reverend, Chief. Ms. is fine, too.”

“Oh. Sorry. I never met a woman priest before.”

“We’re just like the men priests, except we’re willing to pull over and ask directions.”

In the Bleak Midwinter

A note left with the baby indicates the parent's preference for adoptive parents who happen to be members of Clare's parish. Soon a young woman, possibly the mother, turns up dead.

I do have a minor quibble, though: I don't care how many times one flies a chopper in combat, one does not drive a little MG, even if it is red and a convertible, to a cabin deep into the mountains during a winter snow storm. Even I know that, and I live in a desert. Of course, without this trip, Russ would have no need to rescue her, etc. And it does reveal a side of the novice priest that is having difficulty giving up the excitement of combat flight for a small parish in rural New York.

Winter in the Adirondack becomes another character deftly woven into the fabric of the tale. The author does a wonderful job of describing the area in winter, which made me very glad I live in the desert. It is also fun watching the Reverend Fergusson fence with members of her board in order to get her own way in her ministry and what she wants it to accomplish.

 

It‘s summertime in in the Adirondack town of Millers Kill, and temperatures are running high. Local activists are up in arms over a resort being built at the site of an old toxic waste dump. A series of violent homophobic assaults have left several men hospitalized. And Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne and Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson are discovering that it’s impossible to ignore the heat. When the resort developer, a gay man, is found brutally murdered, Clare and Russ will have to face up to their own past demons–and their present temptations–to sweat out the truth behind the killing.

A Fountain Filled With Blood

In this second book in the series, the town is plagued with what appears to be serious gay bashing and murder as well as PCBs found in the grade school playground and a new developer moving into the area. In addition to his other work, Russ is forced to arrest his own mother, who is quite a character in her own right, at a protest of the new resort.

Since the end of the first novel, Russ and Clare have been avoiding each other, hoping that the inappropriate attraction they felt for each other will blow over. It is interesting to watch the relationship develop since they both know that Russ is in love with his wife and there is no future for them together as a romantic couple. Or is there?

 

In Agatha winner Spencer-Fleming's triumphant third novel, Clare Fergusson, Anglican priest and ex-army helicopter pilot, and Sheriff Russ Van Alstyne investigate the hidden secrets, past and present, of a prominent Millers Kill, N.Y., family-and must also face the hidden secrets of their own hearts.

On April 1, 1930, Jonathan Ketchem’s wife Jane walked from her house to the police department to ask for help in finding her husband. The men, worn out from a night of chasing bootleggers, did what they could. But no one ever saw Jonathan Ketchem again…

Now decades later, someone else is missing in Miller’s Kill, NY. This time it’s the physician of the clinic that bears the Ketchem name. Suspicion falls on a volatile single mother with a grudge against the doctor, but Reverend Clare Fergusson isn’t convinced. As Clare and Russ investigate, they discover that the doctor’s disappearance is linked to a bloody trail going all the way back to the hardscrabble Prohibition era. As they draw ever closer to the truth, their attraction for each other grows increasingly more difficult to resist. And their search threatens to uncover secrets that snake from one generation to the next-and to someone who’s ready to kill.

Out of the Deep I Cry

I love novels that can play off of the past in such a way as to be both interesting and illuminating. In this novel crimes of yesterday and today intertwine to provide a satisfying mystery.

The roof of St Alban's is leaking badly, and there is no money to repair it until a parishioner, Lacey Marshall, offers to dissolve her trust to fund the repair. There is only one problem with that solution, it will mean taking away the income of the trust from the town's health clinic that treats the working poor. The clinic was built by Lacey's mother to honor Lacey's father who disappeared one evening during Prohibition. Like Lacey's father, the physician running the Ketchem Free Clinic also disappears.

And yes, Russ and Clare are still struggling with their feelings for each other. Spencer-Fleming does a pretty good job with the dilemma of an ordained priest who is planning on saving herself for her marriage while falling hard for a man who is married and totally forbidden.

There are four more books in the series, with a new one coming out in June that I will include in next week's diary.

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views Brecht, bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
Thu (third each month - on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 4:00 PM Daily Kos Political Book Club Freshly Squeezed Cynic
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Jan 28, 2013 at 05:01 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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