One Was a Soldier; being the seventh entry in the Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne series by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Before launching into the main body of this review, I decided to look back at my posts on earlier novels by Julia Spencer-Fleming. It had been a while since I read a novel by this author. What, I wondered, did One Was a Soldier have in common with previous entries in this distinguished and critically well received series?
In March of 2007, when I was yet but a baby blogger, I named All Mortal Flesh (fifth in the series) as one of my choices for the Best Books of 2006. I then quoted a short review I’d recently placed in Mystery Scene Magazine:
“Julia Spencer-Fleming has taken her superb series to new heights with this novel, which is full of humanity, passion, and anguish. And what a cliffhanger of an ending!! I have no idea what’s in store next for these flawed, all-too-human characters whom she has made me love.”
In a post dated the following month, I cited Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson as being two of my favorite “mysterious” fictional characters.
In October 2008, Marge and I had the pleasure of attending Bouchercon in Baltimore. Julia Spencer-Fleming was among the authors we encountered there. The following month, Marge led the Usual Suspects in a discussion of To Darkness and To Death, the fourth Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne novel. I quote from my post on that discussion:
And then, of course, there’s Clare, the Episcopal priest, and Russ Van Alstyne, the married sheriff. They’re in love, and they shouldn’t be. They can’t be. But they are. Their relationship, if it can be called that, is the chief source of tension in this series, and the main reason that many of us are hooked on it. That – and Spencer-Fleming’s terrific writing and great sense of humor.
I go on to say:
Clare Fergusson is a wonderful creation. Although Marge was somewhat disappointed that we don’t get to witness more of her priestly functions in this novel, it is still readily apparent that she is a caring, spiritual person.
By the time we get to One Was a Soldier, the circumstances surrounding this relationship have changed dramatically. (Please hold the thought concerning Clare’s “priestly functions.”)
Later that month, I wrote about three works of crime fiction that I’d been looking forward to reading and that in the event, had all disappointed me in some way. One of them was I Shall Not Want, the sixth in the Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne series. What were my problems with that novel? The first was that the plot was too complicated, and too much explanatory material was crammed in at the end. This was my second problem:
The book featured several scenes of explicit sex that, for me, read like something straight out of a rather lurid romance novel. I admit, this reflects my own bias against that kind of writing in crime fiction, where I find it jarring and out of place. It definitely struck me that way in I Shall Not Want.
I had forgotten about this completely, and I was deeply dismayed to encounter similar scenes in One Was a Soldier. The first explicitly sexual encounter occurs right at the outset, with Clare and Russ fumbling frantically with each other’s clothing, and more, in a moving car. Yes, they’ve been apart for a lengthy period. And perhaps Spencer-Fleming means to show us that a town sheriff in his early fifties can still feel desperate lust, as can an Episcopal priest (and returning combat veteran) in her late thirties. But to me, the two came across as a pair of sex-obsessed teenagers. I was so annoyed that I nearly gave up on the novel then and there.
But I kept going. I tend to give books in series I’ve previously liked a fairly generous chance to grab me as a reader. And One Was a Soldier did grab me. Spencer-Fleming’s writing is literate; at the same time, her prose flows along easily, drawing the reader into the scenario she’s setting forth. That said, the plot is rather oddly structured, in the sense that the murder does not occur until around the half way point. Predictably, that’s when the focus tightens and the book becomes harder to put down.
In fairness, one of the reasons for the novel’s structure is that Spencer-Fleming takes great care in depicting the challenges that face returning combat veterans. There are a good number of these individuals in Miller’s Kill, and they’re dealing with a variety of difficulties. There is a young man who, as a double amputee, must come to terms with the new reality of his existence. Others are dealing with depression and anger. There’s a therapy group available to them, but the young woman who runs it seems rather unsure of herself and inexperienced; she continually falls back on platitudes and harps so much on “feelings” that group’s participants become impatient with her, as did this reader. (Several of the group members have a connection with the criminal investigation, and at one point they discuss it in such detail that it seemed to me they must be revealing privileged information. This was one of the novel’s less believable scenes, in my judgment.)
The lives – and deaths – of members of the armed services is a subject that has deep personal meaning for Julia Spencer-Fleming. The following is from my post on To Darkness and To Death:
The author’s father, an Air Force pilot, lost his life in a plane crash when she was only six months old. Her mother subsequently remarried; this explained the book’s mysterious (not to mention poignant) double dedication: “To my father, Lt. Melvin Spencer, USAF,” and “to my father, John L. Fleming.”
Spencer-Fleming’s description of the veterans’ struggles is infused with great empathy and compassion, heartfelt without being mawkish.
That said, I found it hard to credit Clare’s active – one might almost say, hyperactive – role in the above mentioned investigation. Frankly she came across as an overage, excessively meddlesome Nancy Drew. And this takes me back to the thought that I asked you to hold onto a bit earlier. With everything that’s going on in her life – planning a wedding, readjusting to civilian life, doing the Nancy Drew bit alluded to above – it seemed to me that Clare’s role as a priest was getting short shrift, both in the narrative and in her life in general. I’m no expert on the daily lives of the clergy of various faiths, but it’s my general impression that being a priest, or a minister, or a rabbi, or an imam, is more than a just a job. It is a vocation that takes up a great deal of time and requires a considerable outpouring of personal resources: physical, mental, and emotional. It is much more than dashing off a sermon at the eleventh hour or squeezing in a quick visit to a sick parishioner.
At one point, Clare is visiting an elderly woman who serves her some home baked pumpkin bread:
Take, eat, she thought. This is my body, given for you. They ate the bread together. It was warm and sweet on Clare’s tongue.
This scene occurs very late in the novel. I found myself wishing there had been more like it.
To sum up: In my view, One Was a Soldier is not quite on a par with previous entries in this series. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling read and I do recommend it, especially for those already happily enmeshed in the trials and tribulations of Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson. And as regards this storied couple, their creator discloses a momentous development at the very end of the novel….