Review: One Was a Soldier

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Buried Under Books.

One Was a Soldier
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Minotaur Books, April 2011
9780312334895
ARC from Creatures ‘n Crooks

The St. Alban’s volunteers served lunch to men in mechanic’s overalls and feed store caps, and to women headed to Fort Henry for the afternoon shift behind a cash register at the Kmart or the Stewart’s. They served the slow-moving, dignified elderly, and occasionally the young, darting around their mothers or fathers.

Clare tried to speak with as many people as she could, even if it was as brief as a greeting and a “Lord, it sure is hot today, isn’t it?” Pouring drinks, swiping spills off the tables, bringing diners seconds, she could feel her vocation reassembling around her, feel herself changing from a single recipient of God’s grace into a conduit, from someone clutching with tight fingers to someone giving away with both hands. She had long though that if Jesus were around today, he’d be feeding people at a soup kitchen instead of washing their feet.

At long last, One Was a Soldier, the seventh book in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s popular and well-regarded mystery series, will be released next week. I’m sure I’m not the only reader thinking, “Finally!” (Actually it was more like, “Hot diggety damn!” when my mother said she had the ARC, and “Is water wet?” when she asked if I wanted it. Now that I’ve read it, my #1 thought is, “When’s the next one coming out? There will be a next one, yes?”)

When we last saw Reverend Clare Fergusson and Chief Russ Van Alstyne, at the end of the very harrowing I Shall Not Want, Clare was shipping out for a tour of duty in Iraq. One Was a Soldier is set a year and a half later, after her return. She’s not the only resident of Millers Kill to serve overseas, however, nor has she returned unscathed. One Was a Soldier follows Clare and four fellow veterans as they try to re-integrate with the lives and families they left behind in Millers Kill. Some are more successful than others.

When another member of Clare’s PTSD support group is found dead, questions arise about the cause and reason for her death. Was it murder or suicide? What could drive a young woman who seemed to have finally found a reason to live to kill herself? Alternately, who might have had motive to kill her? Unsurprisingly, Clare refuses to accept the easy explanation, and pushes Russ to dig deeper.

I was first introduced to Julia Spencer-Fleming’s work through Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a blog for romance novel fans, nearly 3 years ago. Macmillan was giving away the first two books in the series as free downloads, and the pairing of a female Episcopalian minister (from Virginia, no less!) and a small-town police chief intrigued me, as did SB Sarah’s description of the pair as “Reverend Kickypants” and “Detective Angsty Thundershorts.” I was hooked by the fourth chapter of the first book, quickly bought up the entire backlist in dead-tree form, and have been a devotee ever since.

It may seem odd to promote a mystery series on a romance blog, but this series is an excellent example of blended genres – much like the way Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series mixes science fiction, mystery, and romance, sometimes all in the same book! The evolving relationship between Clare and Russ that comprises the heart of the series is a powerful draw for romance novel fans, and certainly one of my favorite parts. (n.b. to Julia Spencer-Fleming, in case she’s reading: that also goes for Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn. More, please!)  Male-female partnerships occur in other mystery series – Tommy Lynley and Barbara Havers, for example, or Nick and Nora Charles – but the pattern seems to be to delineate the boundaries at the outset: they’re either firmly platonic or a pre-existing couple. Off the top of my head, I can think of only one series where we see a romantic relationship develop, and that’s between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. The slowly-building passion between Clare and Russ gives Spencer-Fleming’s series an added emotional component and a unifying thread that keeps the reader coming back, wondering where and how and when (or if) they’ll take the next step.

Fortunately, Spencer-Fleming does not neglect the fundamentals of plot that are crucial to making a good mystery series work. As the series has progressed, the mystery that drives each narrative has grown increasingly complex and multilayered, demanding the reader’s full attention; pick up any one of my copies of Spencer-Fleming’s books and you will find notes jotted in the margins and on the back pages, indicating my efforts to spot clues and connect the dots while reading along. Furthermore, while her writing is never preachy or didactic, Spencer-Fleming uses the narrative to explore larger social issues, such as the vaccination debate (Out of the Deep I Cry) or anti-gay bigotry (A Fountain Filled With Blood); in One Was a Soldier, it’s the psychological struggles war veterans face on returning home.

It’s clear that Spencer-Fleming holds servicemen and women in high regard, and her presentation of the different ways PTSD can manifest itself is very well done. However, because Spencer-Fleming is working with such a large cast in One Was a Soldier, Clare’s struggles with alcohol and prescription drug addiction and her combat flashbacks, and how these affect her relationship with Russ and her return to her position as rector of St. Alban’s, do not get the attention they should. While I love how the Millers Kill ‘verse has expanded and I look forward to seeing familiar names (see my comment above about Kevin and Hadley), Clare and Russ seem to have become more and more part of a large ensemble cast, and so less attention is given to them as individuals and as a pair. I miss the thoughtful insights into Clare’s and Russ’ characters that earlier books in the series provided, and that made me such a fan in the first place. If there are to be more books in the series, and I really hope there will be, I’d like to see things scaled down a bit to refocus on Clare and Russ. If this means that supporting characters like Kevin and Hadley end up being the leads in their own series – well, I’d buy those books in a New York minute. 🙂

In addition to the book, there is free supplementary material in the form of letters Clare and Russ wrote during her deployment, called Letters to a Soldier. I’d love to be able to comment on this additional material, but unfortunately it is only available (albeit for free) to those with e-readers or e-reader software, which I do not have and am not inclined to get. Props to the publisher for making it available on a wide range of platforms, but they lose points with me for not making it available as a simple .pdf that I can download directly from their site. That was how I first got into the series in the first place, so I’m sorry they didn’t do so this time. For those who are interested and do have  e-reader software, there is information on where to get Letters to a Soldier here.

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