This winner of the 2001 Malice Domestic Award for Best First Traditional Mystery is actually something of a hybrid. Rev. Clare Fergusson, the new Episcopal priest at St. Alban’s, rather improbably talks police chief Russ Van Alstyne, in the upstate New York town of Millers Kill, into riding one of his patrol shifts with him. And it’s together that halfway in the shallow Kill in Payson’s Park they find the body of Katie McWhorter, bashed and dead of hypothermia, who’d just left her newborn baby outside St. Alban’s with a note asking that childless law partners Geoffrey and Karen Burns be named his adoptive parents. There’s nothing cozy about Russ Van Alstyne except for his obvious admiration for the woman who’s landed in the middle of his murder investigation. And even Clare Fergusson isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a country priest: Like Russ, she’s an army veteran, a helicopter pilot whose military training will come in very handy when she’s lured into a snowy ambush and separated from her laughably vulnerable MG (the Had-I-But-Known side of this debut) but turns the tables on her armed assailant (the kick-ass side).
Without ever slighting the central situation of the abandoned mother and her abandoned child, Spencer-Fleming shows admirable resourcefulness in the changes she rings on it. Even so, nothing that happens here—certainly no impression made by the stock suspects—upstages that staple of the neo-conventional mystery, the unconsummated romance between the amateur sleuth and the loyal cop, whose convenient wife remains strategically offstage throughout.