Award-Winning Mystery Author Stops In at Bookshop
"And the winner is" "And the winner is" And the winner is"
Aspiring writer Julia Spencer-Fleming wasn't dreaming when she heard those words repeated over and over -- six times, in fact, for her debut novel, "In the Bleak Midwinter." No first-time author has ever won the St. Martin's Press Malice Domestic Award for "Best First Traditional Mystery Award," the Dilys, Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry Awards for Best First Novel.
Not before. Not since.
Spencer-Fleming's success with her first novel wasn't a fluke. Since 2001, she's written five more award-winning mysteries in what Publisher's Weekly calls her "cozy-cum-thriller" series set in the town of Millers Kill, where 35-year-old, single, Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson, and 50-year-old, very married, Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne, solve crimes together while struggling with their forbidden love for each other.
On Tuesday, April 22, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop, the former lawyer-turned-author from Maine will present the fifth award-winning book in her series, "All Mortal Flesh," just released in paperback.
"We were thrilled when we found out Julia could stop by the bookshop on her way to the Malice Domestic Convention next weekend in Virginia," says Bobbie Bicket, owner of The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines. "Her sixth novel, 'I Shall Not Want,' won't be available until June 10, but we just couldn't pass up this opportunity to introduce her and her wonderful mysteries to the community."
Spencer-Fleming, who had a demanding personal injury law practice, two small children, a new baby, and a husband who became a full-time student after being downsized, worked on the manuscript of "In the Bleak Midwinter" for two years before entering it in the 2001 Malice Domestic Contest sponsored by St. Martin's Press, the country's largest publisher of mysteries. She won over 230 other authors. By the time her second mystery, "A Fountain Filled with Blood," was finished in 2002, her first book was in its fifth printing.
After St. Martin's gave her a contract for two more books, she "happily quit the law" in 2003, and began working out of her 185-year-old farmhouse outside of Portland, Maine. Her third mystery, "Out of the Deep I Cry," was nominated for the Anthony and Edgar Awards. "To Darkness and to Death," the fourth book, received starred reviews from the trades, raves from the book critics, and was a Book Sense Notable book. "All Mortal Flesh," the fifth in the series, was nominated for an Agatha Award and won both the Gumshoe and Nero Awards in 2007.
The Millers Kill series is set in a small upstate New York town loosely based on Hudson Falls and nearby Argyle, where Spencer-Fleming spent her childhood.
"The books take an unsentimental look at the hardscrabble existence in an economically depressed Adirondack town, explore the life-altering effect of violence on people's lives, and include what I hope is heart-pounding, adrenalin-inducing action," says Spencer-Fleming.
The action comes from amateur sleuth, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, who was an ex-Army chaplain and helicopter pilot in Kuwait before becoming a newly ordained Episcopal priest, the rector of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Millers Kill.
"I wanted to write action," the author says. "I thought by giving her a military background it would be feasible that she could confront danger, that she would have the skills necessary to disarm someone who is coming after her."
Having Clare a priest solves the practical problem of an amateur sleuth.
"You've got to give the person a good reason for poking around in murders," Spencer-Fleming says. "A part of a priest's job is getting involved with people's intimate lives and problems, and helping them. I'm also very interested in touching on social and moral issues."
One of those issues is the delicate ongoing relationship between Clare and Russ, her married friend and colleague.
"Readers seem to love the relationship between my two protagonists," says Spencer-Fleming. "I think there's something very compelling about the whole 'forbidden romance' thing, where this couple, who are obviously meant to be together, are forced apart by not only their circumstances, but also their own sense of honor and duty. A lot of readers have thanked me for portraying a couple who have this deep recognition of the soul with one another, but who are committed enough to their vows to stand their ground and not simply give in to their feelings."
Once Spencer-Fleming completes the last in the seven-book Millers Kill series, she has plans for a thriller involving a stand-off at a snow-bound prison in Maine, based on the actual closing of the Maine State Prison, when in a 48-hour-period, every single maximum security convict in Maine was moved from Thomaston to the new SuperMax -- by bus -- in February.
"I also have other ideas, including a possible series featuring a sort of 'anti-Clare Fergusson' -- an Episcopal priest who's so burned out by 20+ years of ministering that she retires to what she hopes will be a hermit-like existence on a Maine island. And I'd love to do something lighter and more romantic, set in Alabama, where my father's side of the family is from."
Julia Spencer-Fleming was born in Plattsburgh, N.Y. She is a former military brat, growing up in places as diverse as Mobile, Rome, Stuttgart and Syracuse. She studied acting and history at Ithaca College, and received her J.D. from the University of Maine School of Law. She lives in Maine, along with her husband, Ross Hugo-Vidal, an elementary-level special education teacher, and their three children.
For reservations for the Meet the Author Event, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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