Gunfire, romance make upstate mystery a gripping tale

Julia Spencer-Fleming may live in Maine but she writes deftly about the small villages between Schen

Julia Spencer-Fleming may live in Maine but she writes deftly about the small villages between Schenectady and the Adirondacks.

She matches her sure sense of upstate communities with tough, fast-paced mysteries and tumultuous romance in a series that features Clare Fergusson, an Episcopal priest and Army Reserve helicopter pilot, and Russ Van Alstyne, police chief of Millers Kill.

‘I Shall Not Want’

AUTHOR: Julia Spencer-Fleming

PUBLISHER: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 336 pages, ISBN 978-0-312-33487-1

HOW MUCH: $24.95

Millers Kill is a fictional village in Washington County. It is a composite, loosely based on Hudson Falls and the village of Argyle, where Spencer-Fleming spent her childhood.

“I Shall Not Want” is the sixth and newest entry in the series. In it, some of the main characters refer to events that happened earlier. I have not read any of the previous books but from the way characters talk, it seems this is a series where one book builds on the other rather than some being prequels or flashbacks.

Despite that, “I Shall Not Want” is written in a manner that the mystery, plot and romance are self-contained. A reader can enjoy it without having read the earlier books.

Gun battle

The book opens with Hadley Knox, a single mother and a new police officer in Millers Kill, in a gun battle with two men who have hostages. She dives off a porch and scrambles for cover behind her police cruiser. The scene is so vivid that the reader feels bullets whizzing past and feels Hadley’s labored breathing as she races for her cruiser.

The shootout becomes a stand-off; then the reader is taken six months into the past, setting the stage for the shootout to return at the end of the book.

Immigrants are at the heart of the mystery and the plot. Russ’ sister feels compelled to hire immigrants from Mexico and Central America to keep up with her expanded dairy farm. A van full of migrant workers, driven by Sister Lucille Pirone, crashes, leaving her and several passengers hurt and several more running through the woods because they fear arrest. Then foreign drug dealers are seen cruising the back roads and dead immigrants begin turning up in the woods.

When the bodies are discovered, some see the work of a serial killer and Russ must scramble to solve the mystery before fear overwhelms the village and frightens away tourists. Clare is drawn into the mystery when she hires Amado, a migrant who broke his arm in the van accident and needs light work until his arm heals.

To avoid spoiling the mystery, I do not want to say more. However, the author makes it tough for the reader to unravel by throwing in many well-placed plot twists.

The police procedure has a realistic feel. There are dramatic moments and gunfire. Spencer-Fleming grasps how a crime scene is managed, how coroners analyze corpses and how state and local police run fingerprints and test ballistics. She also offers much information on the mechanics of the rural drug trade, smuggling of illegal aliens and how criminal gangs work.

Close bonds

But perhaps most importantly, she captures the close bonds between police officers. For example, Hadley Knox has applied to be a police officer after leaving California and her philandering husband. She is nearly broke, taking care of two young children and her ailing grandfather. Russ sees her struggles and offers to use part of the police basketball fund to enroll the two children in a summer camp. Hadley bristles; she does not want “charity.”

Rather than pull rank on her, Russ lists the many times officers have helped fellow officers with personal troubles. “We have to trust each other with our lives,” he says, “And that means we take care of our own.”

Along with the strong mystery, the passionate, difficult romance between Clare and Russ holds the reader’s attention. They had an affair in an earlier book. While they were together, Russ’ wife was killed. He spends much of the book confronting the guilt of loving Clare while his wife was in peril. Clare loves Russ but is not ready to commit because he was about to end their romance at the time his wife died.

Some readers may see elements from other writers. The rural setting and the challenge of romance in middle age are elements in Nancy Means Wright’s Vermont mysteries. A romance between a police chief and a strong woman in the military is found in Michael McGarrity’s Kevin Kerney series. Even though her series shares ingredients with other mysteries, Spencer-Fleming takes the ingredients and cooks up a mystery with a unique, delectable flavor.

Julia Spencer-Fleming will appear for a signing at the Open Door Bookstore on Jay Street in Schenectady on Friday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. as part of Art Night Schenectady.

Categories: Life and Arts

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