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Sunday, 23 August 2020

‘Hid From Our Eyes’ by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Published by Headline,
7 April 2020.
ISBN: 978-1-4772-1098-2 (PB)

Picking up a new book in a familiar series is a little like meeting up with old friends after a long absence – and when that absence has lasted six years, they get a warm welcome. I last met Julia Spencer-Fleming’s priest and police chief crime-busting duo back in 2014 and left them on a knife-edge; the crime was solved, but the local police force’s future was in jeopardy. 

In Hid From Our Eyes it’s still in jeopardy. Most major decisions seem to be made at the ballot box in the USA, and whether to disband the local force in the upstate New York town of Millers Kill and rely instead on the state police will be decided by a local vote. Meanwhile, police chief Russ Van Alstyne and his trusty cohort have a murder to solve. Possibly two murders. Three, even.

The body of a young woman has been found on a little-used road. The medical examiner – pathologist to us Brits – is mystified; the body is unmarked, and there’s no evidence of drug misuse. Russ Van Alstyne is similarly nonplussed; the case is an exact mirror image of another unexplained death more than thirty years earlier – and that time he himself was a suspect. Only the fact that the earlier case was itself a copy of yet another, twenty years before that, diverted suspicion from him.

Russ’s investigation is hampered by shortage of sleep; his wife, Episcopalian priest Clare Fergusson, has recently given birth to their son Ethan, who has difficulty telling night from day. Clare is trying with limited success to juggle work and new motherhood, while Russ is trying to play an active parenting role and run the local cop shop at the same time.

The great strength of this engaging series is the way everyday life in small-town America leaps off the page. All the characters, main and supporting, have lives and issues to deal with; childcare, difficult relationships, personal prejudices all have a part to play and sometimes even get woven into the plot. Clare is the kind of priest every parish should have: a recovering addict, firm in her faith but with a healthy sense of her own limitations, she has a charismatic personality without a hint of piety. And there are few things she enjoys more than getting involved in Russ’s work.

Russ himself is a rarity: a perceptive, no-nonsense cop who doesn’t lack emotional awareness. His mother Margy is a campaigner; if something needs saving, whether it’s the planet or a litter of puppies, she’s the go-to person. Hadley Knox, the only woman on the force, is equally feisty, despite pressing family issues which now include a custody suit by her wayward ex-husband. And Kevin Flynn, her love interest from a previous book and formerly Millers Kill’s rawest police recruit, has moved to the state force and reappears in disguise!

If all this makes the crime-solving seem incidental, there’s no need to worry; identifying the young woman’s body and pulling together the slender clues to what happened to her remains very much centre stage – especially when the police chief who was in charge twenty years ago makes a comeback.

There’s a surprise or two at the end, but then there always has been in previous titles in the series. Just when you think it’s all over, there’s a delicious loose end just waiting to be tugged in the next book. And speaking for myself, I can hardly wait for it.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Julia Spencer-Fleming was born at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, spending most of her childhood on the move as an army brat. She studied acting and history at Ithaca College, and received her J.D. from the University of Maine School of Law. She is the winner of the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Dilys, Barry, Nero Wolfe, and Gumshoe Awards, and an Edgar and Romantic Times RC Award finalist. She lives in a 190-year-old farmhouse outside of Portland, Maine.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction. 

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