I discovered Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson and Russ van Alstyne books about a year and a half ago. A dear friend of mine, who is a female Episcopal priest, gushed over this mystery series. Most the mysteries I read are set in the past. I don’t find many modern mysteries that compelling – they seem far too violent, and real life has enough violence for me. Yet, the kicker with this series is the lead is a female Episcopal priest. Patty handed me the first book, In the Bleak Midwinter, and it only took a few days for me to rush through it. There aren’t many books out there with a female minister, and certainly not one as the primary character. I know we are still in the minority, and I enjoy reading about someone who might have some things in common with me.
I have no idea if Spencer-Fleming is attempting to convey any certain theological stance or not. Yet, she defines a rather clear one in the development of her characters and story lines. Clare is not the stereotype one assumes for a minister, apart from her gender. A compelling military background prepares her in unusual ways for her parish (totally apart from her crime solving – an activity the typical minister does not usually undertake). Her calling from God is real, fresh, immediate and perplexing. God calls all sorts of people, oftentimes for reasons that no one can comprehend (including the called individual), and Clare represents that so powerfully.
The other characters are varied and full. The books are filled with experienced and crusty police officers, Granny activists, struggling and misunderstood teens, a variety of veterans, individuals struggling to survive economically and spiritually, wealthy but flawed movers and shakers, and a wide assortment filling the spectrum. The author’s gift is not just that she can create so many interesting and imaginative characters, but that each one is sympathetic. I despise the actions of some of the individuals, but yet I cannot help but have compassion for them, as Clare herself does. There are no perfect people and no perfect answers. Life is tough. Life is complicated. Life hurts. Yet, through it all – there is grace.
The best fiction provides truth. It inspires us to be more and better than we are. In one book, Clare laments to a colleague that she might be reckless. The other woman tells her she probably instead is fearless. I have used that example to sister clergy, as well as to students. They are two sides of the same coin. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s theology is that each unique person is a child of God, gifted and graced in powerful ways. Her theology is that the life God offers to us can call us so far beyond what we can imagine, and that we should be fearless in seizing grace and opportunities. Hold on tight to that, and we will find the path that fulfills, compels, and inspires.