My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In the Bleak Midwinter has been classified as a mystery. If I were doing the classification, I would call it a romance. True, there is a mystery involved, but the main focus of the story seems to be the burgeoning, if forbidden, romance between Clare Fergusson, the new priest at St. Albans Episcopal Church in the Adirondacks, and the local (married) sheriff, Russ Van Alstyne, who is an unbeliever.
First, we have the mismatched couple meeting cute - sort of - over a newborn infant that has been left at the door of St. Albans in the midst of a very cold winter night. There seems to be an almost instant attraction between the two, although, obviously, neither of them can admit it, but, over the next few days, they keep inventing excuses to meet and to be together. Meantime, the sheriff's wife of sixteen years, whom we never meet, is conveniently absent on business. She runs a custom curtain and drapery-making business, which her husband seems to view as quite frivolous, even though it helps pay his bills.
One of the would-be lovers' excuses to see each other is that Clare wants to go on patrol with the sheriff to learn more about her new community. First time out, they discover a body. A young woman had been hit over the head and left unconscious by a stream to freeze to death. When the pathologist does the autopsy, it is discovered that she had recently given birth. Hmmm...wonder if there could be a connection to the abandoned infant?
Next, we have the sheriff going by the rectory one night to consult with Rev. Clare and he witnesses her through her kitchen window, cooking dinner and joyously dancing while she cooks. It makes him smile because she is just so cute and adorable! Now, isn't there a scene like this in every romance?
Then, of course, there is the scene where Clare and Russ have a big row over something that seems totally innocent and innocuous. Everything gets blown way out of proportion and our heroine flounces off while the hero fumes and wonders what happened. Again, it's a standard scene in all romances.
And, finally, as the investigation continues and the body count mounts, Clare receives a message with information that she regards as a clue that might just solve the case. She follows the clue into the mountains in her dinky little car, with no winter provisions and no proper winter clothing, in the middle of a snowstorm. There, she meets the killer who has cleverly lured her into a trap and she has to be rescued from her perilous situation by the brawny hero (whose wife is STILL out of town) and he can't help noticing how really attractive she is and how much he admires her impulse to try to help people even when it puts herself in danger.
So, yeah. I would say the emphasis is on the romance, not the mystery.
Actually, the mystery itself was not bad. There were plenty of clues, a few red herrings, and it was all well-paced and not obvious. The two main characters were adequately developed. We learn that they both have a military background and they are both supposedly tough customers, each in his/her own way. As they spend more time together, tongues in the small town are soon wagging about a possible romance. Wonder what the sheriff's wife will think about the gossip. If she ever comes home.
I believe this was Julia Spencer-Fleming's first book and it was a creditable effort. The best parts about it for me were her descriptions of scenery and setting. I felt as though I could smell the forest and the snow in the Adirondacks in December. And she brought the various houses of the characters to life with her narrative that made the reader feel as though she were there.
Perhaps next time she will lean a bit more heavily on the mystery and just let the romance smolder along. Or if she chooses romance over mystery, it would be helpful if Clare, who is supposed to be a competent woman well-trained in survival strategies, showed a little better judgment and didn't come off as such a ditz and an insult to competent women everywhere.
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