A Triumph of Atmosphere

There are a fair number of mystery series with clergy of some persuasion playing the role of detective. It's easy to see why this would appeal to a writer interested in exploring the whys of a whodunit. The latitude to explore on moral and spiritual issues is greater allowing for a more complex narrative. Making the cleric in question both a woman and a former army helicopter pilot increases the opportunities for complexity. Add to this Julia Spencer-Fleming choice of locale - small town upstate New York - and you have a canvas for a broad social commentary in her All Mortal Flesh.

This is my first venture into the Clare Fergusson - Russ Van Alstyne series and in retrospect it probably isn't a good place to start for the simple reason that the relationship between the two leads comes to a crisis point. The difficulty is that not having read any of the previous books I didn't care about whether Russ and Clare would give each other up forever and nothing in the book changed that. Another difficulty is that the situation calls for the two leads to act at their least rationale which can undermine the confidence other characters seem to automatically place in them.

What Spencer-Fleming does especially well is create a believable, palpable locale, her town of Miller's Kill and the people in it feel real. Spencer-Fleming does deliver one genuine plot twist along the way. She does over play things on occasion, like St. Alban's new deacon who might as well stroll into scenes wearing a witches' hat by the end of the book for all the subtlety she's given. The final exposition was a bit of an eye-roller for me - I could see it a mile away, as I good the identity of the murderer. It was a little hard to believe that an intelligent woman like Clare couldn't add it up on her own either but then she was distracted. It might sound like I didn't like this book and the bare bones of the plot in the hands of a lesser writer might have me giving this less than the very respectable 3 stars I did. What made this book stick with me is the community Spencer-Fleming created. By the end of the book I knew what it would feel like to walk down the Main Street of Miller's Kill. That's a genuine accomplishment.

As a stand-alone book, this book leaves more than a little to be desired. As an entry in a series, it is probably quite solid. Julia Spencer-Fleming's undeniable writing talent has me headed back for more - this time starting at the beginning.

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