So over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
, SB Sarah reviewed Julia Spencer-Fleming's In the Bleak Midwinter
, the first in a series of books about an Episcopalian minister (female) and a cop (male) who solve crimes in a small town in Upstate New York whilst experiencing unresolved sexual tension. She gave it an A-, which in the SB Sarah rating system means "I love this book and want to have its children."
In the comments, LizC mentioned that Ms. Spencer-Fleming had a short story featuring the characters from the book up on her website, so I decided to take a look, and you all should too, because it's a fantastic story: Collect for a Noonday Service
There are two things in particular that I like about it. First of all, man is that some tight plotting. Tight like hot pants on a 70s starlet. Click, click, click like a rubix cube, seriously. The essence (or at least, an
essence) of a mystery plot is the gradual, ordered, and elegant revealing of information, and this is one of the best examples of that I've seen.
The second thing "Collect for a Noonday Service" does well is something that I've rarely seen attempted, let alone succesfully. The plot driven not by the actions of a single protagonist (or a single protagonist and his one or two sidekicks, or the opposed actions of a single protagonist and a single antagonist) but by the cooperative actions of a group of eight people. Each one has a piece of information without which the crime couldn't be solved, which is not in itself unique -- there are plenty of stories where the protagoinist has to collect clues from a diverse group of secondary characters. But this isn't that. While there is (for most of the story; the POV is a little slippery at first) a single point of view character who is clearly the protagoinist, the other characters are there not simply to provide her with plot tokens but are actively and continuously engaged in figuring out the mystery; the final result is something they all make together.
There are many reasons why this isn't usually attempted, and I could go on about the fundamental aloneness of man or the individualism of Western culture, but I think one of the main reasons it isn't usually done is because it's hard to write. Julia Spencer-Fleming pulls it off here.
I did have a few problems with the story -- the romance/angst which seems to be a hallmark of the larger series can seem shoehorned in when it appears here, and occasionally overwrought. Furthermore, the prose was not quite as tight as the plotting; in a story which is essentially about a large group of people sitting around and talking to each other, it has to be absolutely clear at all times who is speaking, and that wasn't always the case. But on the whole it's an excellent story, and if you like this sort of thing you will like it. I'm looking at you specifically, rereader