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HID FROM OUR EYES by Julia Spencer-Fleming: Book Review

I’ve “known” the Reverend Clare Fergusson since she interviewed to become the first female priest leading the Episcopal church in Millers Kill, New York, nearly two decades ago.  That’s in real time, but in fictional time not that many years have passed.  In Julia Spencer-Fleming’s latest novel in the series, Hid From Our Eyes, Clare is naturally older than she was when In the Bleak Midwinter was written, but not by eighteen years.

Now she is the established priest of St. Albans, married to the town’s Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne, and the mother of a four-month-old son.  Her days, and nights as well, are a constant juggling act between caring for Ethan, arranging for various child care options when neither she nor Russ is available, and attending to her flock.  That would be daunting enough for anyone, but she’s also dealing with guilt and shame:  guilt because before she knew she was pregnant she was drinking heavily and using drugs; shame because she still craves both.

Finally it does seem that Clare gets a break.  The scion of a wealthy Dutch family who has summered in the Adironacks for decades, Joni Langevoort is searching for an internship in the area while completing religious studies at Union Theological Seminary.  It would appear to be a perfect match, but Clare is surprised when she meets Joni and realizes that Joni is a transgender woman.  Not every congregation would be open to having her on their pulpit; Clare thinks that her diocese would probably get around to welcoming transgender ministers “the twelfth of Never.”  But it’s not an issue for Clare and, she hopes, not for her congregants either.

Hid From Our Eyes tells the stories of three murders spanning more than half a century.  In the midst of a town meeting, Russ gets a 911 call from the police dispatcher that the body of a young woman has been found on a rural road in Cossayuharie, dressed in a summery dress.  This fits the pattern of two separate murders that took place decades ago.  The victims of those crimes were never identified nor the killer or killers found.  “It can’t be the same,” he thinks to himself.   How could there be three identical murders decades apart?

Like his wife, Russ Van Alstyne has more than one thing on his plate.  The League of Concerned Voters, Washington County Chapter, wants to dissolve the police department.  The department covers the three towns of Millers Kill, Fort Henry, and Cossayuharie, and the League wants to give its duties to the state police in order to save the taxpayers money.  Now it’s Russ’ job to convince the voters of the importance of a local police force, but he’s facing some powerful opposition.

As always, Julia Spencer-Fleming gives the reader an intense portrait of life in Millers Kill and the differences between Clare, always an “outsider” because she didn’t grow up there, and Russ, a “townie” whose misdeeds as a young man will never be forgotten.  Once again it’s a pleasure to step into their lives.

You can read more about Julia Spencer-Fleming at various sites on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.




BRUNO, CHIEF OF POLICE by Martin Walker: Book Review

Ah, to be French.  Even in the midst of murder, one must eat, drink, and love.

Benoit Courreges, better known as Bruno, is the chief of police of the small town of St. Denis in the heart of rural France.  A decorated soldier who served with the United Nations force in Bosnia, he wants nothing more than to live the quiet life in his village and serve the people there.  But that, naturellement, is not to be.

There’s a small Arab population in St. Denis.  They are ethnic Algerians, some of whom fought for France during the African campaign of World War II and then emigrated to France.  Others fought for France against their countrymen during the Algerian war of the 1950s and ’60s and escaped to France to avoid retribution when the former colony gained independence.

There’s not much overt racism in St. Denis, which is why everyone is taken by surprise when an elderly Arab man, a Resistance fighter in the Second World War and a recipient of the Croix de guerre medal, is brutally murdered in his home.  A swastika is carved into his chest, and the only things that are missing from his house are a photo of the 1940s soccer team of which he was a member and the above-mentioned medal.

Does the swastika mean that it is a racially motivated crime? Was it committed by a villager or someone from the right-wing National Front, famous for its anti-immigrant stance?  But the family of Hamid al-Bakr has been in France for more than fifty years; the victim’s son is a teacher in the local school and his grandson runs a restaurant in town.  What could have caused the murder of this quiet, almost hermit-like man so many years after his arrival in France?

Two suspects are taken into custody almost immediately.  One is the teenage son of the town’s doctor, the other his girlfriend.  Picked up after Bruno sees their photos at a National Front rally on the Internet, both profess innocence but there appear to be no other suspects and no reason for the murder other than racial enmity.  The investigator sent from Paris would like to see this investigation wrapped up quickly and with a good deal of publicity in order to embarrass the Front, but Bruno isn’t at all certain that the teenagers have committed the crime.

This being France, the murder investigation takes frequent pauses for mouth-watering gourmet meals, homemade wines, Champagne, and the introduction of a beautiful investigator from the National Police.  Except for the murder, there’s a serene quality to the novel, with a great deal of description given to the scenery of the surrounding countryside and the delicious meals that Bruno cooks and shares with friends.

Martin Walker has created a most interesting and charming lead character for his series.  You can read more about the author at his web site and more about Bruno, Chief of Police, at hisVive la France!

SPLIT IMAGE by Robert B. Parker: Book Review

The recent death of Robert B. Parker came as a shock to mystery lovers everywhere. I’ve been a fan of Parker’s since The Godwulf Manuscript and have read each Spenser novel as soon as it was published, although I strongly believe that Parker’s first dozen books were his best.

I’ve not been so enamored of the Jesse Stone or Sunny Randall novels, although I have read several in each series.  Split Image reinforces my belief that Stone is a faint copy of  the “later” Spenser. The too-cute sexual repartee between Spenser and Susan Silverman is identical to that of Stone and whomever he’s bedding.  In addition, there’s always some soft-core verbal sexual talk between Stone and Molly Crane, the sole woman in the Paradise P.D.  In Split Image, Stone, the police chief of the afore-mentioned town, and Sunny Randall, a former Boston detective and current private investigator, try to comfort themselves by hopping into bed.   Again.

Parker portrays each of them as trying to get over their former spouses, and he does a credible job combining Stone’s efforts at moving on with his life while trying to solve two murders that involve beautiful twin sisters, each one married to a crime boss.  What’s so upsetting to Stone, and what nearly derails him, is the question how come these guys (read:  undeserving) got such beautiful, devoted wives while I (read:  deserving) got stuck with a woman who felt being rich and famous was more important than being married to me.  It takes Stone a few sessions with his psychologist and a few talks with Sunny to work out his feelings.   I wanted to say to Stone:  get over yourself, it’s not about you, it’s about solving the crimes in your town.

While Stone is dealing with his psyche, two murders take place in Paradise.  (Not so aptly named, perhaps?  It’s hard to resist taking shots at a town with a name like that.)   There’s too much angst and not enough mystery in Split Image.  In fact, there’s not much mystery at all.  The book, with its wide margins and mini-chapters, is 277 pages, but it probably could have been reformatted to 200.

In the Spenser novels, food plays a big part; in the Stone novels, it’s alcohol.  Although Stone tries to deal with his drinking with various degrees of success, the problem is always with him.  He denies he’s an alcoholic, but as he says here, he drinks when he’s happy and he drinks when he’s sad. If that’s not a good definition of an alcoholic, I’d like to know a better one.

Split Image is not a bad book, it’s just a book that feels like a retread. The mob bosses from Boston, the sexy women who find Stone irresistible, the sly sex talk–we’ve heard it all before.  I borrowed this book from a close friend.  He’s a very knowledgeable reader of mysteries and had given up reading Parker years ago, making fun of me for continuing.  However, on hearing of Parker’s death, he bought Split Image as a sort of homage to the late author.  It was a worthy thought, and I wish it had been for a better book.

You can also find out more about Robert B. Parker at his web site.