We waited three years for Julia Spencer-Fleming to bring back Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. She left us hanging when she sent Clare to Iraq in I Shall Not Want. But, Fleming brought Clare and Russ roaring back to life in the unforgettable One Was a Soldier. It was worth the wait.
Sheriff Russ Van Alstyne waited for Clare to return to Millers Kill, New York. But, his planned romantic homecoming for her is broken up when he has to respond to a disturbance at a local bar. It's only the first time he and Clare will encounter the three people involved in the fight, Specialist Tally McNabb, her husband, Wyler, and Chief Warrant Officer Quentan Nichols. Tally will turn up in the veterans' group that Clare attends for counseling. And, all three of them will turn up in one of Russ' investigations.
Russ is eager to get back to life with Clare, hoping to marry her. But, she returned from Iraq, scarred with memories, dependent on pills and alcohol, hiding that from him. It isn't as easy to hide problems from the other veterans and the therapist, but she uses her role as an Episcopalian priest as a good shield for the truth. She can see the young Marine who hasn't let out his anger at losing his legs. She knows a returned veteran has anger issues. But, how can she, a leader and a priest, also have problems? Knowing all that they know about each other, when one of their own is a suspected suicide, Clare's veteran group can't accept that. They refuse to accept Russ' decision, and start their own investigation into a murder. Neither Russ nor Clare know how far that investigation will go.
One Was a Soldier could have been a dark mystery, dealing with veterans' issues and mystery. But, Julia Spencer-Fleming doesn't forget to alleviate the tension with humor. Russ Van Alstyne is a cop who understands that sometimes humor gets you through those dark situations. And, there's a great scene when the therapist for the veterans' group realizes they're intent on investigating the death of one of their own. Sarah addresses Clare. "You are not Daphne from Scooby-Doo. We are not going to get into a purple van and ride around town looking for a spooky old house." Then, when she realizes they're all committed, asked what she's going to do, she says, "I guess I'm going to put on an orange turtleneck and drive the van." Perfect sly humor for this story.
There's a complicated plot and mystery in One Was a Soldier, but, as always with Spencer-Fleming, her characters are the heart of the story. The Clare and Russ storyline has always drawn readers back, but there are other characters with a great deal of depth. The returning veterans have come home with issues civilians don't think about; nightmares, addictions, loss of limbs. Spencer-Fleming shows the depth of the problems, and the issues people don't want to face. We'd rather welcome them home, and then go on with life. The other members of the police force also have complex lives that add to the story's richness. Spencer-Fleming brought police officers back from war, officers who have matured, and changed. The rest of the force has to adjust to those changes.
We've waited a long time for a new Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery. One Was a Soldier welcomes Clare Fergusson back from Iraq, and Julia Spencer-Fleming back to the mystery world. The mystery world is better off with all of them here.
Julia Spencer-Fleming's website is www.juliaspencerfleming.com
One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming. St. Martin's Minotaur. ©2011. ISBN 9780312334895 (hardcover), 336p.
FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me an advanced readers' copy, hoping I would review it.
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