The wait from Julia Spencer-Fleming’s eighth Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery to this ninth in the series was over six years. Fittingly, Hid From Our Eyes encases a mystery within a larger unsolved mystery — a new crime with two possibly related cold cases dating as far back as 1952. Three timelines star three different police chiefs: Harry McNeil in 1952, Jack Liddle in 1972, and Russ Van Alstyne in the present day. And to make things even more interesting, the current Police Chief was a suspect in 1972!
Along with the puzzling murders of women found by the roadside in party clothes with little effects and no obvious cause of death, the current state of affairs in the Adirondack town of Millers Kill and its surrounding towns adds to the narrative tension — the underfunded Millers Kill police force is at risk of being dissolved as powers that be push for State Police to be the sole law enforcement body for the region. Along with concerns about the future of his force and his staff, Russ Van Alystyne also shoulders burdens regarding his wife Clare, as the addition of their new baby makes the rector’s life especially challenging as she juggles work and home life while wrestling with her own personal demons.
Though I had no previous familiarity with Spencer-Fleming’s work, Hid From Our Eyes served as a perfect introduction to the town of Millers Kill and to Police Chief Van Alstyne and his wife, Reverend Clare Fergusson. The three timelines are nicely managed and maintained, allowing the reader to learn about the history of the Millers Kill police leaders as well as get a glimpse into both the town’s past, and the complex backstory of Chief Van Alystne, a Viet Nam veteran and former MP. There’s also a wonderful dynamic between former Chief Jack Liddle and Russ Van Alstyne, Liddle serving as both mentor and father-figure to Russ.
Spencer-Fleming has a gift for balancing a well-paced mystery with an engaging, meaningful glimpse into the lives, emotions, and motivations of her very human cast of characters. These are characters with stories of their own to tell. Alongside our married pair of protagonists, who are smart, funny, impassioned, compassionate, determined, and complex, we meet several members of the police force and get glimpses into their struggles which in turn reveal even more about Russ and how much he cares about those under his protection — both the town and his crew. We also meet an interesting character in Clare’s new pastoral intern who turns out to be a transgendered woman.
Although the novel’s thematic focus can be serious and its resultant tone heavy at times, Spencer-Fleming is careful to inject humor and levity as well as compassion and sensitivity. There may be some difficult topics for readers, but they needn’t fear. For there’s so much heart in these pages that you’ll find yourself caring for, indeed loving, the folks who inhabit them. And, if like me, you’re meeting Russ and Clare for the first time with this newest installment, you’ll be so thrilled that you can go back to the beginning (In The Bleak Midwinter) and find out how Russ and Clare met. Reading the backstory novels will give you something to do while you wait for book ten. Because when you finish Hid From Our Eyes, you’ll be dying to know how things turn out in Millers Kill.
Verdict: 5 of 5 Hearts: Three murders, three police chiefs, three time-lines, all equally compelling!