'All Mortal Flesh' is book five in this crime series about a woman priest and the Chief of Police of a small town of Millers Kill in the Adirondack mountains in New York The two of them keep being thrown together as they try to sort out various violent deaths in the town.
Book by book, the attraction between them has grown, fed partly by denial and mostly by a common urge to act and to protect.
...the Police Chief is married. To a very nice, very attractive woman (it annoys me a little that it matters whether she's attractive - it shouldn't pile on the angst - she's his wife - that should be enough) that he dragged to this small town when he retired from the Army and with whom he has not been able to have children with. His wife, he believes, is a woman that he still loves.
...the Priest is deeply committed to her faith and her parish and knows that she can't honour those things AND keep feeding her attraction to the Police Chief.
By the violent and traumatic end of the fourth book, aptly titled ‘To Darkness And To Death’, both of them have realised that, although they haven't had sex, they have had an affair in their hearts, with all the betrayals that that involves.
I'd wondered how the fifth book would cope with this. I had expected another mystery during which the two of them would go through the slow torture of deciding what to do, even though there are no good choices but Julia Spencer-Fleming is braver than me and she's given the fifth book an explosive start.
The book opens with the Priest having gone on a week's retreat, during which she's reached a conclusion and now expects never to see the Police Chief again. THEN I find that the Police Chief's wife has thrown him out and shared the reasons with her best friend. THEN her best friend finds the Police Chief's wife murdered.
And all of that was in the first five per cent of the book.
I'd clearly underestimated how much pain Julia Spencer-Fleming is willing to put her characters through. This was an edge-of-the-seat -how-can-THIS-have-gotten-worse sort of book.
This book has claws and it slipped them into my imagination the way a cat will hook your flesh if you show it too much trust. I needed to know what happened next, not just because the plot was full of surprises that kept me guessing about who had done what to whom, or because the way the story cut back and forth between Clare and Russ kept the tension ramped up but because I needed to see a way through the grief. 'All Mortal Flesh' is soaked in grief, real messy, ugly, I-want-to-look-away-from-this-grief, not the romantic don't-you-just-want-to-hug-him/her kind.
Neither Clare nor Russ let themselves off the hook for their actions or the consequences of their actions. Both are determined to do the right thing. It's painful to watch but it feels true.
The language of the book is one of the things that make it so powerful. Take this description that opens the chapter in which Russ appears for the first time in this book:
There are moments in life that are between: between the blow and the pain, between the phone ringing and the answer, between the misstep and the fall. One that comes to everyone is a moment, or three, or five, between sleeping and waking, when the past has not yet been re-created out of memory and the present has made no impression. It is a moment of great mercy; disorienting, like all brushes with grace, but a gift nonetheless.
'when the past has not yet been re-created out of memory and the present has made no impression' - I love that.
Then there's this description of Clare in a moment when she is guilty entertaining the hope that she and Russ might have a future. I think it captures Clare's values perfectly:
But she could not forget Russ’s pain, his poor murdered wife, or the guilt – equal parts sin and complicity – that clung to her like a wet dress.
I was very impressed by this instalment of the series and I'll be back for book six, ' I Shall Not Want', shortly.