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TO DARKNESS AND TO DEATH by Julia Spencer-Fleming: Book Review

Self-preservation is the first law of nature.  It’s certainly true in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s fourth novel in the Reverend Clare Fergusson/Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne mystery series.

I usually review the most recent book by an author, since I think that’s what most readers want.  In order to truly understand the dynamics of the priest and the police chief, though, this series should be read from the beginning.  That being said, To Darkness and To Death, the fourth Fergusson/Van Alstyne novel, will hopefully lead you to read the other books in order and thus gain a deeper insight into the characters of the two protagonists.

Clare Fergusson is an unmarried Episcopal priest in a small town north of Albany, New York. Russ Van Alstyne is a former soldier and the married police chief of this town, Millers Kill; kill is an old-fashioned word meaning a body of water such as a creek or river.

In Out of the Deep I Cry, the first book of the series, the two meet, and by the second book, A Fountain Filled with Blood, there is the beginning of a relationship that is slowly, slowly heading toward a place neither one wants it to go.

In To Darkness and To Death, many things in Millers Kill have reached the boiling point, including the relationship between Clare and Russ.

Millers Kill, like many other small towns, has been losing manufacturing businesses to other locations with cheaper labor and manufacturing costs. The two biggest businesses in town, Castle Logging and Reid-Gruyn Pulp and Paper Mill, are about to be sold by their reluctant owners to a joint ownership by a foreign company and a native conservancy group.  Economics being what they are, it’s simply not financially feasible for these two companies to stay in business, especially given the fact that the town’s huge timber tract, which they both need to stay in business, is owned by the van der Hoeven family and is also being sold.

So into the mix that is the core of the book’s one day events is 1) Millie van der Hoeven, member of the family that owns the 250,000 acre timber land, who is missing as the novel opens; 2) Randy Schoof, a logger who can’t think of any other way to make a living when he’s told the logging company will close; 3) Becky Castle, daughter of the logging company’s owner and a committed “tree-hugger” who’s putting together the sale of the timber tract; 4) Shaun Reid, fourth generation owner of the pulp mill who desperately wants his son to be the fifth generation owner; 5) Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne, whose platonic but emotionally charged relationship is about to come to a head.

What happens when law-abiding people don’t see any way out of their difficulties except murder? What happens when people who’ve always been law-abiding members of society decide to take the law into their own hands?  What has made them decide that their lives are worth so much more than anyone else’s?

What happens when two people who shouldn’t be attracted to each other, are?  Can anything good come of it?

Each of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s books shows a deep understanding of human nature. Most of us know the rules of behavior, but we can’t or don’t always abide by them.  And when we don’t, things go from bad to worse.

You can read more about Julia Spencer-Fleming at her web site.

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