It was over eleven years ago that I read and reviewed the fourth book in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series of upstate New York novels, and now we’re onto book #9. This averages out to only about one book every two years, a remarkably slow pace for an author of fiction.
That pace may be annoying for many readers, at least the impatient ones, but it might reflect the fact that these novels aren’t just dashed off with a quick plot. There is considerable character development, both from one book to the next and within each individual book. Although the story is continuous throughout the series, you can certainly pick up this one and read it with enjoyment and understanding even without having read the previous eight. The only thing that might confuse you is that chapters alternate between 1952 and 1972 and “present day” (which is apparently 2018, not 1992 as you might expect in the interest of symmetry), but the author does an excellent job of signaling which chapters are in which time period, so you won’t actually be confused if you’re paying attention.
As is conventional in literary mysteries, most of the characters are flawed, which is of course what makes them interesting. The one constant from the beginning is Clare Fergusson, an Episcopal priest who once flew helicopters in the Army. Earlier — in book 7? book 8? I don’t remember — she married police chief Russ Van Alstyne, who has been a major character in the series since early on. I don’t know a whole lot about the fictional town of Miller’s Kill, nor about whatever real town it may be based on, but Spencer-Fleming creates a convincing sense-of-place, along with convincing descriptions of both church politics and small-town politics. The inclusion of some contemporary socio-political issues is bound to turn off some conservative readers, but it’s plausible enough for the rest of us. The ending, however, is not completely plausible, and there is a bit of a cliff-hanger there, inviting the reader to the next novel in the series.
I listened to the audiobook version, as I did for most of the previous novels in the series, and I highly commend the narrator Suzanne Toren, who makes all the characters come alive and portrays them as distinct individuals. This particular audiobook concludes with an informative interview with both Spencer-Fleming and Toren.