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ALL MORTAL FLESH

By Julia Spencer-Fleming

St. Martin's Minotaur, October, 2006 ($22.95)
ISBN:0312312644

Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel

Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson needs a break from her parishioners and her married lover, Russell Van Alstyne, the chief of police of Millers Crossing. She spends a few days sorting things out in an isolated mountain retreat, but is no closer to finding peace with herself than when she started. When she returns to Millers Crossing she learns that Russ's wife, from whom he was recently separated, has been found in their home, brutally murdered, her face mutilated beyond recognition. Russ is the prime suspect, but he doesn't want to say that he has an alibi - he was with Clare at the cabin when the crime was committed. The authorities are soon made aware of the close bond between Clare and Russ, making Clare another candidate for the murder.

Clare's struggle with her faith leads the church authorities to send her some "help" in the form of a new, unasked for deacon. Elizabeth de Groot is uptight, unimaginative, small-minded, but she does know all the rules and regulations of their denomination, and shares them with Clare. She also shares her disapproval of just about everything Clare does, as a minister and in her personal life. Clare is no ordinary priest, and therein lays the problem. She is the first female pastor at St. Aldan's, and some of the more conservative parishioners are unhappy about that. Her background is unusual for a cleric: she is an ex-Army helicopter pilot, self-sufficient and capable, but slow to open up to others. Although to this point the affair between Clare and Russ has been mostly unspoken and unconsummated, certain circumstances make it appear otherwise.

Because Russ is a suspect in the murder, the powers that be send someone to "help" him as well, with resulting friction. Most of his department supports him, but at least one has ambitions for higher things and doesn't mind taking down his boss in the process. There is a major plot twist that turns everything upside down, and puts even more strain on the relationship between the two thwarted lovers. I finished the book hoping that there will eventually be a happy ending for the pair, who certainly deserve it. With only two more books planned in the series, the author may give them that chance.

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