Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne have been doing a lot of soul-searching-literally. At the beginning of ALL MORTAL FLESH, Julia Spencer-Fleming's fifth novel set in the small upstate town of Millers Kill, New York, Clare and Russ, after confessing their romantic feelings toward each other, have spent a week praying, crying and wrestling with their personal demons as they try to decide how to approach their decidedly forbidden love relationship.
The young, military-trained, female Episcopal priest and the married veteran chief of police might be an odd couple, but their love for each other is sincere and utterly believable. In the end, the two make the heartwrenching decision to part, never to see each other except in chance encounters at the grocery store and post office, to be almost-strangers instead of close friends and almost-lovers.
All this becomes a lot more complicated, though, when Russ's wife Linda is found murdered in the couple's family home. The long-married pair have been separated for more than a week, and both Russ and Clare certainly have means, motive and opportunity to kill the woman. Russ, nearly paralyzed by grief, feels compelled to pursue Linda's killer even as he copes with his own feelings of disloyalty, doubt and guilt. Russ also discovers that his late wife, who was so outraged to hear of Russ's feelings for Clare, might have been hiding her own secrets all along. Clare, too, tries to exercise her amateur sleuthing skills to achieve justice and to exonerate the man she can't help but love. In the course of the investigation, small-town rumors fly fast and furious, suspicions are cast, loyalties are tested, and the truth about Russ and Clare's relationship finally might have to come out in the open.
Russ must take his own investigation underground when the state police, tipped off by one of Russ's own men, begin to suspect that the department is covering up for their chief. In the meantime, Clare is also under suspicion, as a frighteningly capable new deacon shows up to put her oar into Clare's parish (and personal) affairs. Just when Russ and Clare, who have grown so important to one another, need each other most, they are unable to depend on the other at all. Just as in previous books in the series, the character development, as much as the mystery plot, will be what keeps readers engaged, turning pages and demanding to know what happens next.
With ALL MORTAL FLESH, Julia Spencer-Fleming takes her superb series to new and darker places. Mistaken identity, new characters and a painfully ironic plot twist drive the novel in unexpected ways, and the end of the book will take both Russ and Clare in unforeseen directions that hint at future complexities to come. With its fascinating, probing character studies and unusual ethical sensitivities, Spencer-Fleming's mystery series takes the genre to a whole new level --- and it looks like the best, most challenging chapter is still to come.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 22, 2010