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American/Cozy Mysteries

To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming, St. Martin's, $6.99.

To Darkness and to Death by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Claire Fergusson should be getting ready for the bishop's visit, but instead she's out beating the bushes for the missing Millie Verhoeven, an heiress poised to sell some of the 250,000 acres she owns in upstate New York to a logging company. The kidnaping of Millie is merely the crank that turns this complex, meticulously timed novel (Spencer-Fleming has obviously taken a lesson or two from the great Minette Walters). As Claire finishes up her part of the search - she's a last minute, grudgingly accepted addition - she of course becomes immersed in the crime and is thus thrown once again into close proximity with her forbidden love, the married police chief of Miller's Kill, Russ Van Alstyne. Maintaining the tension between these two has been Spencer-Fleming's balancing act through now four books, and it shows no signs of letting up. The tension is in fact ratcheted up when Russ' wife, previously almost completely offstage, is added to the mix, to the point where she, Claire and Russ actually sit down to a formal dinner together in front of the whole town of Miller's Kill.

Claire and Russ' difficulties aside, however, this book is also a painful and penetrating look at the crumbling economy of many small towns, in this case Claire's particular small town, but it's a situation uncomfortably mirrored all over the country. The economy of Miller's Kill has long been tied to logging, and now that smaller operations can no longer turn a profit, big ones are moving in, without the local roots or loyalties. There's a paper factory in town whose work can now be outsourced, and of course, there's also the ecologically minded who object to logging of any kind. Each of Spencer-Fleming's books has taken a close look at contemporary issues - her first, adoption; her second, homosexuality; her third, child vaccinations; but this novel seems to tackle the most compelling issue she's written about to date. Spencer-Fleming provides a nuanced look at all sides; I suppose if she was able to offer a solution she should probably be running for president instead of writing novels.

This is not to say that this book is only a polemic, because it's not. Like Sara Paretsky (a Spencer-Fleming fan herself), this is another author who is able to combine character development, action, and a serious message. I'm not sure what else a reader could ask for - beautiful prose? It's here too. I also enjoy the fact that with each novel, this talented author is willing to take a slightly different approach. I think it keeps this series fresh and compelling - the next installment can't come soon enough.

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