Dark Mirror: M. J. Putney
Children's Literacy and Reading News Roundup: February in Review

One Was A Soldier: Julia Spencer-Fleming

Book: One Was A Soldier (A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery)
Author: Julia Spencer-Fleming
Pages: 336
Age Range: Adult

OneWasASoldier Background: I don't generally review fiction published for adults on this blog. However, I make the occasional exception for some of my favorite mystery series. I have found a considerable overlap between adults who read children's and young adult literature and adults who enjoy mysteries - so I figure I'm doing my audience a small service.

Review: One Was A Soldier is the 7th title (due out in early April) in Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series, set in Millers Kill, NY. If you haven't read the earlier books in the series, I recommend that you do so before reading this review. The Fergusson/Van Alstyne books feature a small town police chief who falls in love with an Episcopal priest. [Some additional background on the series is included in my review of Book 6.]

As One Was A Soldier begins, Russ and Clare are finally free to be together, after overcoming various hurdles. Clare is back from 18 months flying helicopters in Iraq, and Russ has an engagement ring in his pocket. The events of the summer are described via the shifting viewpoints of several characters (including Clare, Russ, and rookie police officer Hadley Knox). Interspersed between these passages are flashes forward to September meetings of Clare's veterans' counseling group, from the relatively objective viewpoint of the group's leader. The two timelines eventually meet, mid-way through the book.

The mystery in One Was A Soldier involves the suspicious death of a newly returned soldier, a death that strikes a bit too close to home for Clare. Her tenacious investigation of this death threatens to create a rift between Clare and Russ, and puts various members of the counseling group in danger. The plot is complex, involving a variety of different threads and a host of potential suspects. Mystery fans will find themselves mulling this one over, trying to solve the puzzle.

But One Was A Soldier is really about the physical and emotional scars that war leaves on people. Clare is traumatized, having nightmares, drinking too much, and relying on pharmaceutical help to get her through her work-filled days. Another member of the group has serious anger issues, while another struggles to conceal his memory problems. All of these damaged individuals are portrayed sympathetically, but unflinchingly.

One Was A Soldier is not an easy book. Those looking to mysteries for "comfort reads" will probably want to look elsewhere. Readers have to pay close attention to keep up with the shifts in time and viewpoint, and the intersecting details of the various stories. And seeing Clare struggle, for fans who have loved her through six earlier books, is gut-wrenching. But for those who are prepared to invest the time and effort, this is a very rewarding read.

One Was A Soldier offers a window into the reintegration challenges that soldiers face. This is set against an intriguing puzzle, the ongoing personal progress and mis-steps of the characters, and, fortunately, dry witticisms that lighten the tone. I think that Russ is my favorite viewpoint character. He's full of heart, but with a wry tone. Like:

"Clare gestured with her head toward the CIC lounge across from the elevators. He resisted the urge to wrap his arms around her and tote her into the room, settling for walking just behind her to catch her if she fell. The waiting room was done in early modern Valium, all mellow colors and soft lights." (Page 61, ARC)

I love "early modern Valium". So true! And I love Russ's banter with his long-time deputy, Lyle MacAuley:

"MacAuley let his half-smile drop. "Seriously. The only young MP I know is Eric McCrea, and I'll tell you, if I had to go pick him up for something, I sure wouldn't do it without backup."

Russ nodded. "Yeah. Okay. you're right."

"I usually am. It's save us a lot of time if you'd just start from that premise."" (Page 90, ARC)

I talked in my last review about the difficulty of maintaining tension in a series in which unrequited passion is a major component of the plot. I'm happy to report that Spencer-Fleming continues to pull this off. As an unmarried priest in a small town, Clare can hardly just have Russ move in. So the two are still not able to be together as much as they would like. And, oh, how it pains them to be apart. They're also two strong-willed people who don't always agree, and that keeps the tension going, too. I think that the author is doing a nice job of giving this long-suffering couple some happiness, without making "happily ever after" boring.

But for readers looking for unrequited passion, Spencer-Fleming also continues to explore the (non)relationship between younger officers Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn. She has a real flair for writing about longing, I must say.

In summary, One Was A Soldier is a must-read addition to the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. Readers who care about the residents of Millers Kill won't want to miss it. And for anyone looking for a smart series with intriguing puzzles and nuanced characters, these books are hard to beat. This installment is particularly strong, and quite timely, with all of the violence going on in the Middle East. Highly recommended.

Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: April 12, 2011
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).