Saturday, October 13, 2007

Out of the Deep I Cry & All Mortal Flesh

Out of the Deep I Cry and All Mortal Flesh are the third and fifth books in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mystery series. I'd read one of the earlier volumes for a book group discussion, then heard Spencer-Fleming speak at a conference and purchased Out of the Deep. Either I've become more accustomed to her detective and thus more interested in her world, or Spencer-Fleming just gets better with each book. After reading Out of the Deep, I found All Mortal Flesh and finished it in two days.

For those unfamiliar with Spencer-Fleming’s series, the premise is that Clare Fergusson, ex-Army helicopter pilot, now a newly-ordained Episcopalian priest, is at her first parish in the small town of Miller’s Kill in upstate New York. There she meets long-time resident and police chief, Russ Van Alstyne; the two quickly develop a friendship that threatens to become more (“threatens” because Russ is already happily married). This alliance allows Spencer-Fleming to look at crimes from two perspectives – the priest’s and the policeman’s.

Spencer-Fleming adopts her most creative narrative approach for Out of the Deep I Cry. Its opening chapter is set in 1970, when a young Russ Van Alstyne saves the widow Ketchem after she tries to drown herself. The next chapter leaps to the present, where Clare faces another watery problem: the church’s roof is leaking – with the worst patch near a memorial window given by the Widow Ketchem. Her daughter and only surviving relative, a parishioner, volunteers to use the Ketchem Trust to finance repairs, but doing so will deprive the town’s Free Clinic of a portion of its funds. Feeling guilty, Clare visits the clinic and encounters Debba Clow, an angry mother who is picketing to protest its doctor’s mandated immunizations for her children. When the doctor later disappears after meeting Debba outside of town – in the Ketchems' family graveyard – Clare steps in to help with the search, hoping to exonerate Debba.

As the novel progresses, flashback chapters (working progressively backwards in time) depicting key scenes from the Widow Ketchem’s life are interspersed with the main storyline. Connections between the two stories emerge: Widow Ketchem founded the free clinic and hired the now-missing doctor; vaccinations – or the lack thereof – brought about a Ketchem family tragedy. Thus, as the mystery advances toward a solution, a second story – the secrets of Widow Ketchem’s life – is gradually revealed, with each flashback providing insight into previous scenes.

As with Spencer-Fleming’s other books, the title (which, as usual, is taken from a hymn) carries particular significance. Among other things, a crucial point in Clare and Russ’s relationship is tied to a scene involving cries from the deep – but to say more would risk spoiling the plot.

Sometimes, I can be patient and wait for the paperback release of subsequent volumes. After finishing Out of the Deep I Cry, however, curiosity about how Spencer-Fleming was going to handle the complications she’d introduced into Clare and Russ’s relationship sent me to the library, where I happily seized on All Mortal Flesh, not realizing there was a volume between the two. Once I’d looked at the blurb, I was hooked.

Caveat to those still reading early titles in the series: Even the premise of All Mortal Flesh – printed on the blurb and mentioned in reviews – is a potential spoiler in regard to some of the continuing characters in the series. Consequently, all I’ll say is that the story is as much about Clare as about the mystery. For me, this was probably the most compelling book so far; virtually everything else was neglected until I’d finished it.

Obligatory link: An excerpt from the opening chapters of the first Clare Fergusson title, In the Bleak Midwinter, is online at Spencer-Fleming’s site, as is one for Out of the Deep I Cry. I don’t know if the hardcover of Deep is set a year earlier than the paperback or if the draft used for her website was never modified to correspond to the published version, but the first flashback really is dated 1970 (not 1969) in the paperback edition.


Blogger Jill said...

Great post and great review!

10:32 AM  
Blogger Booklogged said...

Oh, great! Just what I need is another series on my TBR list. You made this series sound so good though. I love hearing some authors speak.

9:50 PM  

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