May 04, 2011

BOOKS: One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming (2011)

Seventh in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. The two lead characters are the Episocopalian priest and the police chief in Millers Kill, a small town in upstate New York, and the development of their personal relationship is a background plot throughout the series.

As this one opens, Clare has recently returned from deployment in Iraq (she's an Army helicopter pilot) and is meeting with other Iraq vets from Millers Kill in a small veterans' support group. We flash back over the last several months to the stories of their individual returns from war and the challenges they're facing readjusting to civilian life.

Spencer-Fleming takes her time with these stories, letting us get to know each of these characters before actually getting to the murder mystery part of the plot. The body isn't found until almost halfway through the book, in fact, and when Russ and his department conclude that it's a suicide, Clare refuses to accept that, and recruits her fellow vets to help solve what she insists is a murder.

This is a very solidly constructed book; a lot of things that look like unimportant background details during the telling of the various vets' backstories turn out to be more significant, and Spencer-Fleming does a lovely job of tying all the threads together. The fact that all of the vets are somehow tied into the mystery feels a bit overly coincidental, maybe, but no more so than usual for the genre. The post-war struggles of Clare and her fellow vets are neither sugarcoated nor overly sensationalized, and the progress of each feels realistic.

This is one of the best series in recent years, and if you haven't been reading it, you should. The mysteries in each volume are stand-alones, but the development of the Clare/Russ relationship (and some of the relationships among the recurring supporting players) is interesting enough that you'll enjoy them more, I think, if you read them in order. (The first volume is In the Bleak Midwinter.)

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