3 Questions for Detective Novelist Julia Spencer-Fleming
In the tradition of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, Julia Spencer-Fleming has written a series of novels about a clergy member who moonlights as a sleuth. What sets the Rev. Claire Fergusson apart from the surprising number of other clerical detectives is not so much her gender or Episcopal denomination as her military service as a helicopter pilot in Iraq — and, as the series progresses, her romance and eventual marriage to Russ Van Alstyne, the police chief of Millers Kill in upstate New York. Those two distinctions make the series an intriguing update of both the traditional “cozy” mystery genre and clerical-sleuth subgenre. The ninth installment is Hid from Our Eyes (Minotaur Books, hardcover, Kindle), which has the police chief onstage much of the time as it spans three generations of Millers Kill cops and residents while the present-day couple grapples with investigation, recent parenthood, municipal politics, and church life. Six years in the making and impeccably executed, it is the most ambitious book in an addictive series.
Hid from Our Eyes is your first book in six years. Was the creative process more difficult, or just different, this time?
It was definitely more difficult. I was picking the book up, putting it down, picking it up, putting it down, etc. as life interrupted. The greatest work gap was an almost two-year period when my husband was diagnosed with cancer, spent a long time in treatment, and then died. I had zero creative energy after that — not surprising — and when I was finally ready to return to the manuscript, it felt so disjointed and cobbled together I was seriously tempted to toss it and start afresh with another story.
However, I got great encouragement from my blogging sisters at Jungle Red Writers (web, Facebook). They urged me to see it through, and although finishing the book made me feel like a little kid being dragged from her bedroom shrieking “I don’t wanna go to school!” I’m so glad I stuck it out. This book required more editing than anything else I’ve ever written, but I have a talented and persistent editor who saw what I wanted the story to be and helped smooth out the narrative gaps left behind from its multi-year gestation.
I’d like to avoid spoilers — but your new book ends with at least two unresolved personal challenges that Claire and Russ will have to tackle in the next book. Why this, why now?
Leaving my two main characters vulnerable happens in every book. I ask, “What is the worst thing I can do to X?”
As a writer and as a reader, I don’t want characters to remain static (well, except for Jack Reacher. He can stay exactly as he is forever). Throughout my series, relationships change and develop and double back. We see new sides to people we thought we knew well. And most important, things that have happened in previous stories continue to affect characters, just as in real life. For instance, Clare — who has always liked a drink — went to war and came back with a problem. She was able to get clean and sober during pregnancy and nursing, but she’d become used to pills and booze as a crutch when things got stressful. Addicts don’t change instantly or easily, and I realized while writing Hid from Our Eyes that Clare hadn’t really done the hard work of sobriety. She still had to climb that mountain.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about seeing cop characters in non-law-enforcement settings. That led me to an important part of the story in which the town decided to put the fate of its police force up for a vote. That was based on several real-life stories from upstate New York towns that have done what Millers Kill is considering — closing down their police departments in favor of paying into the county sheriff’s department or the state police. Now the book is out, and we’re all thinking about the value of police and what their roles should be, which are some of the questions I set up for the forthcoming book number 10. Providential timing.
What are the key similarities and differences between Washington County, New York, the setting of your books, and your home base in the south of Maine?
There are a lot more similarities than differences. Washington County borders on mountains, which York County in Maine doesn’t, and that part of New York gets even harsher weather than we do in Maine, which is really saying something!
But both where I live and where I set my books are places where the old nature-based economies are gone. The mills, which provided a good living to generations, are closed. Tourism has become one of the most important sources of employment. The old folks stay and the young ones leave.
Both York County, Maine and Washington County, New York are places of farms and woods and lakes and small towns, where people can see their kids marching in the 4th of July parade and where everyone goes to the county fair at the end of the summer. They’re places where families have roots going back to the 18th century and sometimes even earlier.
Which makes me think of one difference, and that’s one of history. That part of New York was the frontier of the 18th century, a war zone in the French and Indian Wars and in the American Revolution. It’s Henry Hudson and Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of Saratoga. At one point, Clare notices one of the innumerable blue signposts marking some clash or treaty or groundbreaking event, and she thinks This place has more history than anyone needs. I have to add a caveat: There may be equally important events buried in southern Maine’s past, but I didn’t grow up here, with stories of ancestral glory poured into my ears. I should quiz my kids — they’re the real Mainers. I’ve been here for 33 years, but I’m still an upstate New York expat in my heart.