A Fountain Filled with Blood
by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur
320 pages, 2003
Clare and Present Danger
Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
When one thinks of a small town, several things spring readily to mind: the pace, so much slower than that of metropolitan sprawls; the simplicity of life, where every possible amenity isn't necessarily available with the click of a button or a block away; the camaraderie among members of the community, who actually know each other and likely have for decades, if not longer. But small-town life can be a double-edged sword. Yes, you may know your neighbor, but you'll also likely know what salacious misdeeds said neighbor has committed. And especially for folks who have moved out of the city to escape stress and other perceived urban ills, nasty bouts of violence are an unwelcome intrusion upon peaceful landscapes. The upstate New York town of Millers Kill, where Julia Spencer-Fleming sets her tales, is no exception to the dichotomy of rural living.
A Fountain Filled with Blood is the second novel in a series begun last year with the publication of Spencer-Fleming's In the Bleak Midwinter. That earlier book arrived with considerable fanfare, after taking first prize in the Malice Domestic contest for best unpublished traditional mystery. The praise was deserved, as Spencer-Fleming delivered a tightly nuanced mystery that blended traditional cozy elements with the kind of suspense normally found in much more hard-boiled fare. As well, the novel introduced an unusual mystery fiction protagonist. The Reverend Clare Fergusson was newly installed as the priest of St. Alban's Episcopal Church, having only recently opted out of her life as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Army. Although Clare possessed a real talent for flying and enjoyed what she did, for reasons likely to be elaborated on in the future, she was called to the priesthood. Being young and a far cry from the types (read: older, pious males) who had previously held the position, she is still trying to find her footing among the townsfolk of Millers Kill, and as we see in A Fountain Filled with Blood, a series of shocking crimes only complicates her efforts to assert her position within the community.
The first victim is the local pathologist, found brutally attacked and near death. Initially, the motive is unclear, but it doesn't take long for the matter to be investigated as a hate crime, after witnesses recall spotting some men spouting homophobic epithets in the area just prior to the attack. Soon, another young man is beaten up solely because of his sexual preference. Gay bashing isn't the type of activity Millers Kill is terribly comfortable with, particularly when it leads to savage assaults. Besides, there's enough local controversy brewing already, thanks to proposals by a land developer to transform the town into something a little more prosperous. For a place where changes occur in slow, steady increments, the prospect of major land-razing is met with a great deal of concern. Anxieties finally reach a fever pitch after alarmingly high levels of the industrial chemical PCB, possibly the remnants of a waste dump from 30 years ago, are found at the elementary school playground. Angry protesters quickly inundate the town, making what had been a happy Fourth of July celebration a great deal less so.
Amid this chaos, the Reverend Fergusson finds herself becoming involved all too easily. She has only recently come to terms with the aftermath of events spelled out in Bleak Midwinter -- and not just the violence. There was also the matter of her getting into an extremely complicated situation with someone she shouldn't have: the very married police chief, Russ van Alstyne. Since then, Clare has managed to avoid him and suppress any feelings other than those common among friendly acquaintances. But her equilibrium is knocked loose the minute she hears about the first beating. She's compelled not only to aid in the investigation but to act as an objective listener, taking in the myriad voices of the victims' families, their friends and loved ones, and even members of the media reporting these crimes. Frequently, Clare can't stop from speaking her mind, leading to differences of opinion with van Alstyne on his approach to the investigation:
". . .[I]f word gets out that someone might be targeting gay-owned operations, it's likely to cost the owners business. Even if there are good-hearted neighbors around to keep watch, customers are going to stay away. It's my job to protect Millers Kill. Some businesses make half their yearly income between Memorial and Labor Day. I'm not going to hurt them if I can help it."
Conflicts between Clare and Russ intensify after she stumbles across the victim of a ferocious murder, and the media get wind of the apparent link to those earlier assaults. In spite of their arguments, Clare and Russ share a level of understanding and mutual respect that deepens as this case progresses. And as connections between the crimes and the prospective land redevelopment intertwine, the priest and the cop -- superficially, an unlikely pair of friends -- join forces to put Millers Kill back together again.
A Fountain Filled with Blood succeeds on several levels. First and foremost, it is a deeply absorbing mystery, examining many festering tensions among the townsfolk in a balanced manner. The plot's twists and turns lead to a conclusion that is unexpected, yet utterly logical after a closer examination of the clues peppered throughout this story. Spencer-Fleming's prose is clean, uncluttered and no-nonsense, which moves the story along briskly yet never overshadows character development. And Clare's actions are invariably believable and human; despite the inherent authority of her profession, her quirks show through: driving her car too fast, letting her temper flash too quickly and even reviving her piloting skills without breaking a sweat. Her quiet and profound belief in prayer is never preachy, but instead highlights her strength of character.
Fundamentally, this new novel continues the story of two honorable people who recognize something truly significant between them, but struggle to keep anything beyond friendship suppressed. Where Spencer-Fleming really shines is in showing how much Clare Fergusson and Russ van Alstyne care for one another, and how supportive they are of each other -- especially when their lives are endangered. Naturally, something has to give at some point; such interpersonal tension can only be sustained for so long, particularly when it is built -- as it is here -- not solely on sexual desire but also on emotional connection. Russ' wife is an off-screen presence; a beautiful cipher, as Clare thinks of her. It is not unreasonable to expect a change in the chief's marital relationship, but the suspense is in seeing how such a change might be precipitated.
When an author pens a debut of such auspiciousness as Maine resident Julia Spencer-Fleming did last year, the threat of the sophomore jinx looms large, and many a writer has struggled to overcome the pressures accompanying that next book. Happily, A Fountain Filled with Blood easily triumphs over any dire prognostications. At one point in these pages, Russ comments that Clare has "a little shine," like the Holy Spirit; so, too, might Spencer-Fleming. Her series is already very, very good. If she can maintain its present high standards of plotting and characterizations, it might one day be considered among the very best in the mystery field. | April 2003
Sarah Weinman works as a bookseller and is completing her master's degree in Forensic Science. She has written articles and reviews for Tart City, Shots magazine and Books 'n Bytes. A Canadian by birth and inclination, she now lives in New York City.