Clare meets Russ van Alsytne when a baby is abandoned on the steps of her church. After pulling himself out of a downward post-service alcoholic spiral with the help of his wife, Russ was more than a bit surprised to find himself being offered a job as Chief of Police of the small Adirondack town where he grew up. And surprised to find himself accepting it. A handful of years later, he and his wife have made a comfortable life for themselves in Millers Kill, even if Russ spends far more time at work than he does at home. Russ has a few friends in the town, but his fellow officers, as well as the police dispatcher, Harlene, are his true family.
Russ and Clare served in the military at far different times—Russ in Vietnam, Clare during Desert Storm—yet their military experiences give them far more common ground than Russ shares with his wife. And they both share a deep commitment to serving, and helping, the people of their town. Russ is initially annoyed by Clare's more intuitive, at times impulsive, approach to solving problems, but the combination of their similarities and their differences are what make them work so well together as an informal team. As each pursues the baby's missing mother, on their own and sometimes together, Clare and Russ develop an unexpectedly strong friendship. And by the end of In The Bleak Midwinter, each is beginning to realize that the other has the potential to mean far more to him/her than anyone ever has before.
Yet Russ is married, happily married, to a woman whom he loves, even if he doesn't feel as emotionally close to her as he is coming to feel to Clare. As the novels are told through multiple viewpoints, primarily those of Clare and Russ, we are privy to their thoughts about each other; even though the two do not openly acknowledge their feelings until the third book in the series, readers know how much each is coming to respect, trust, and care for the other.
Both Russ and Clare are leaders, with power and authority in their own quite different professional spheres. And both are deeply honorable people, unwilling to let their own needs harm others. Russ is committed to his wife; Clare is committed to her church. Because they are both so deeply involved in the lives of others in Millers Kill, their paths often cross; staying away from each other doesn't seem to be an option. So they choose to remain friends, committed to continuing to work together when they can, determined to keep their attraction for one another from crossing any inappropriate lines, a decision appropriate to responsible grown-ups. At 35 and 50, Clare and Russ are not impulsive young lovers.
With the gossip rampant, Russ's own honesty won't allow him to keep his feelings for Clare a secret any longer from his wife, either. And thus book five, All Mortal Flesh, opens with Russ having been kicked out of the house by a frustrated, embarrassed, angry Linda Van Alstyne, a perfect set-up for a tense "get the wife out of the way" mystery plot.
Though she's encountered several murderers during her time in Millers Kill, Clare does not for a moment entertain the thought that Russ could have killed his wife. But she's not willing to sacrifice herself, or her sense of what is right, for him, either:
"What if I did it?" He sounded distant, as if he were talking about someone else.
"You couldn't have."
"What if I did?"
"Clare, if there's one thing I've learned in twenty-five years of law enforcement, it's that anyone is capable of anything if pushed hard enough. What if I did it and I'm just racing around trying to cover my ass at this point?"
"Why are you asking me this?"
He rocked forward in the chair suddenly, snapping it on its springs and leaning into her space. "I want to know what you wouldn't do for me."
She stared into his eyes, crackle-glazed blue. They hadn't been this close since... she cut off that thought. For whatever reason, this was a deadly serious question for Russ. Not what would she do for him, but what wouldn't she do?
"I wouldn't deny God for you," she said slowly. "I wouldn't betray my country for you. I wouldn't break a parishioner's trust for you." Without conscious intent, her hand started to curl over his. She yanked it back into her lap. "I wouldn't let you get away with it if I found out you were doing something wrong."
"I am doing something wrong. I'm evading questioning by a New York State Police Investigator."
She made a face. "That's rule-breaking. I mean wrong. Sinful. Wounding others. Wounding your own soul." (148-49)
To Russ, is it vital to know not that Clare will stand with him, but rather that Clare won't compromise who she is on his behalf. And forthright Clare has no qualms about telling the man she loves that she will never deny the essence of herself for him.
Even if her murder plot is not impossible to figure out, Spencer-Fleming still has a few surprises for readers of All Mortal Flesh, surprises that leave Clare and Russ by novel's end as far apart as they've ever been. Can't wait to pick up book #6, to see if, and how, Spencer-Fleming can bring these two deeply honorable, intelligent, and loving people back together.
Are there other romantic couples in the mystery genre that have what you think of as a relationship compatible with feminist ideals?