In the Bleak Midwinter (Rev. Clare Fergusson, #1) - Julia Spencer-Fleming
The only thing better than a good book is a good book that is the start of a series. "In The Bleak Midwinter" was a great read that starts a series which currently sits at eight novels.

I took a risk when I bought this book - a mystery about a new woman priest and the Chief of Police of a small town in upstate New York could have been a recipe for saccharine scenes, hallmark sentiments and a story targetted for prime time on a Christian TV channel.

I knew I was safe at the 2% mark when the book made me laugh out loud at the scene where the small town Police Chief unexpectedly meets the new priest and discovers she’s female. The Police Chief asks himself:

What was he supposed to call her? “Mother?”

“I go by Reverend, Chief. Ms. is fine, too.”

“Oh. Sorry. I never met a woman priest before.”

“We’re just like the men priests, except we’re willing to pull over and ask directions.”
I was still surprised at just how good the book is. There's more to it than smart dialogue, Julia Spencer-Fleming has come up with two strong, likeable characters, with military backgrounds, who have their own, non-clichéd, approaches on how to exercise their authority. The rapport and the conflict between them is credible and engaging.

The Reverend manages to be caring and tough. The Police Chief manages to be authoritative without creating conflict.

The two are brought together when a newborn is abandoned on the steps of the Reverend's church with instructions that he be given to a member of her congregation and an as yet unidentified young woman who has recently given birth is found murdered.

What follows is a solid mystery that is a pleasing mix of detection, exploration of moral dilemmas/social issues and tense action. 

The Reverend's continuing close involvement in work that should be done by the police requires a little suspension of disbelief but is well managed. I found her ignorance of the clothes and vehicles needed to cope with mountain winters a little harder to accept but perhaps that's because I've spent so much time in those conditions.

This isn't a "cosy mystery" nor is it a voyeuristic rid into violence. It's something much rarer: a character-driven crime story that manages to acknowledge the bleakness of reality without being overwhelmed by it.

I've already bought the next book in the series, which has the rather off-putting title of "A Fountain Filled With Blood".