New Maine Times Book Review: One Was a Soldier

Posted Wednesday, October 26, 2011 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: One Was a Soldier
ONE WAS A SOLDIER
By Julia Spencer-Fleming.
Minotaur Books, 2011.
327 pages, $24.99.
ISBN 978-0-312-33489-5.

Reviewed by William D. Bushnell

Award-winning mystery writer Julia Spencer-Fleming has an interesting philosophy about her mysteries:  "I write crime fiction, but the crime isn't necessarily forefront and center of what I am trying to do.  What I want to do is write about characters dealing with what life throws at them."  And with this latest mystery, she does that just fine.

ONE WAS A SOLDIER is Spencer-Fleming's seventh mystery novel featuring Episcopal priest Clare Ferguson and Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne, following I SHALL NOT WANT (Minotaur, 2009).  This is a smart, sophisticated mystery series that confronts thorny social and political issues wrapped in murder, mayhem, and small town misbehavior.  She lives in Buxton, Maine.
 
With this excellent new mystery, Spencer-Fleming presents the real-life problems and challenges facing returning war veterans, from physical and mental disabilities, to anger, guilt, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  And she does it with grace, sensitivity, and honesty.
 
Clare is not only the Episcopal priest of Miller's Kill, New York, she is also an army helicopter pilot just returned from a combat tour in Iraq.  Her experiences of war in Iraq have scarred Clare, however, and she is self-medicating with booze and pills to get through the days and nights, but the flashbacks and nightmares won't go away.
 
She and Russ are a romantic item trying unsuccessfully to be discreet in a gossipy small town where he is the widowed police chief and she is the local cleric.  Their passionate reunion is abruptly interrupted when a mysterious Army military policeman shows up in town looking for a particular veteran, but his story and curious behavior don't make sense to Russ or Clare.
 
Then when one of the Iraq war veterans in Clare's mental health counseling group is found dead of a gunshot, folks really scratch their heads in puzzlement.  The police investigation determines the death to be a tragic and sad suicide, but the victim seems to be the most unlikely person to commit suicide.  Clare and the other soldiers in the counseling group smell a rat - they think it's murder, but Russ and the police close the case, satisfied it is a suicide.
 
As Clare deals with her own demons, she and some unusual accomplices carefully investigate the apparent suicide on their own, uncovering a widespread conspiracy of corruption, theft, cover-up, and murder.
 
Add a cop with a violent short fuse, a deputy police chief who is wiser than he looks and acts, a doctor who cannot remember anything, a lying, low-life husband, a barroom full of slack-jawed losers and brawlers, a smarmy and arrogant corporate big-shot who Russ hates with unhealthy fervor, a couple of MPs who aren't what they seem, some exciting fights and car chases, and a huge pile of credible motives that would normally explain a lot, and this tale reveals much about temptation, greed, lust, revenge, and the unintended consequences of bad decisions.
 
This is a complex story of war-fractured veterans and the powerful single bond that unites them, as well as Russ and Clare's efforts to face her addictions and their uncertain future together, all set in an intriguing and well crafted crime plot.  Once again, Julia Spencer-Fleming has a solid hit mystery.
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