Book Reviews: A Fountain Filled with Blood and Out of the Deep I Cry

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How do you keep a good thing going? How do you sustain a story and characters across multiple books? How do you keep from running out of steam, especially when you’re leading people down the primrose path of a budding romance? Think the old tv show, Moonlighting. How long do you wait for your lovers to get together and what do you do after? No one’s interested in what happens after they get together.

Finding a mystery series that successfully navigates the potential quagmires suggested by these questions is not an easy thing, but so far, the Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mystery series by Julia Spencer-Fleming does not disappoint.
I wrote about the first book last week, and I’m currently chugging through the fourth (To Darkness and To Death). That right there should probably tell you all you need to know about the series. As soon as I put one down, I have to pick up the next. Part of this is, of course, to see what will happen with Clare and Russ’ illicit romance (she’s an Episcopal priest and he’s a married cop). But also, it’s just the promise of a good read in a summer when I’ve found myself often disappointed.

A Fountain Filled with Blood proceeds pretty much in the same vein as In the Bleak Midwinter, only this time the multiple assaults and then murder might be hate crimes against gay men, and we get to see Russ try to deal with his own homophobia. I thought Clare was acting a little weird and out of character at times in this book , but not enough to put it down.
In Out of the Deep I Cry, Spencer-Fleming decides to try something new, and you have to admire that. There are always risks involved. I think of musicians who suddenly switch genres mid-career. Joni Mitchell and her turn to jazz (though folks argue that she was really pretty jazzy even in her ‘folksy’ days). Do you lose your core fan base? Or Joss Whedon who talks about how boring a tv show can become, and how he looked for ways to spice it up (with a musical episode and an episode where the characters can’t speak for most of the episode). There’s a risk in changing midstream, because it’s like fast food restaurants. People know what to expect and they like that. But an artist is not a fast food restaurant, and producing the same old hamburger gets pretty old. Where’s the creativity in that?
I admire Spencer-Fleming for trying something different in the third book, which switches back and forth between past events in Millers Kill, and their impact in the present. And as I’m halfway through To Darkness and to Death, I can see that she does it again in the next book, switching perspectives between a dozen or so characters, and displacing Clare and Russ from the center of the book. As a reader, I find this keeps the series more interesting than sticking with the same format book after book and depending solely on the intrigue between Clare and Russ to keep you going.

Since I’m doing more of my own writing, I’m noticing other things to admire in Spencer-Fleming’s writing. Waiting until the very end of the third book to let you meet Russ’ wife is brilliant. She’s a little like Norm’s wife from Cheers in the first books. We know she’s there, Russ talks about her, but Clare never meets her, and we never get a scene where Russ is with his wife. You’re hoping she’s going to be someone you don’t really like, but as is true in life, it’s not that easy.

There are also certain sentences in the books that just pop out at you as some damn good writing. Spencer-Fleming does an especially good job at times at giving succinct little pictures of the town of Millers Kill and its history, without a lot of wordy exposition. For example:

p. 61 “Elm Street had been laid out for lawyers and doctors, mill owners and land speculators, from a time when those worthies had families of a half dozen children, and servants slept in low-eaved fourth-story bedrooms.”
p. 67 “It was shaped like the typical Cossayuharie farmhouse, an overlarge, under-maintained structure that had started life as an 1850s four-up-four-down and had shotgunned backward through an 1870s parlor, an 1890s kitchen, and a 1920s extra bedroom.”
These sentences so perfectly and condensely convey a lot of information about the setting and history of the place.  This might reveal something about my own weaknesses as a writer. Is it possible to over-describe? (I’m pretty sure the answer is yes)

I mentioned in my review of the first book that mysteries are often kind of implausible by nature. Why does everyone around you keep dying or getting beat up? At some point, I’m hoping there are some realistic consequences for the fact that Clare is always up to her armpits in murders, assaults and kidnappings. She is, after all, a priest. One of the things I love about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that there were real-life consequences for Buffy’s super-heroing. She had already been kicked out of one school and she lived in fear of getting kicked out again. She couldn’t really date like normal people. And then there were running jokes about how often Giles (her watcher/father figure) got hit in the head. I think we’re working up to this for Clare in the fourth book, but in the real world, she would surely be suffering some consequences for all her sleuthing. And wondering to herself why she keeps ending up in life-threatening situations with Russ so often.

I’m not going to tell you any more about what happens in these two books, because you should really just go read them. Quickly.

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