Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Book Review: One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

And back to a mystery! This most recent book in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series was delayed almost a year from its original publishing date. The publishing industry has long lead times and it takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r for a book to go from acceptance to bookstore shelves. There are only so many slots open each year with a publisher. So, when Julia Spencer-Fleming missed the deadline to turn in the manuscript for this book, she also missed her publication slot and it had to wait until there was an opening.

(I often wonder what lucky author got chosen to fill that slot. Was it a new author who thought her first book would have to wait over a year to be published? Just think how exciting it would be to be told that your publication date had been moved up!)

The book was well worth the wait. At least, it was for those of us who have read every book in the series, starting with "In the Bleak Midwinter." I'm not sure about those who might start with this book. One of the "rules" of mystery writing is that a body should appear in the first chapter. It's better if it's on the first page. Unpublished writers are drilled in this rule. Established writers are told it had better be somewhere in the first three chapters. They already have a reader base that trusts them and wants to keep reading, even if the murder isn't on page one.

Julia Spencer-Fleming doesn't have the first murder happen until almost the mid-point of the book. And even then, it's not a sure thing that it was a murder. But there's plenty of other things happening to keep you interested.

Clare has returned from Iraq after leaving at the end of the last book, most likely as a way of running away from the intensifying relationship with Russ. But she hasn't returned alone. She's brought back some problems in the form of horrifying nightmares and a dependence on pills and booze. There are other characters who have recently returned from combat, several of whom we'd met in previous books. One is a double-amputee. One has a traumatic brain injury that keeps him from functioning normally. One has uncontrollable rages.

These people come together in a therapy group for returned veterans. We follow their problems in adjusting to civilian life. We wonder how the relationship between Clare and Russ will develop over the course of this book. And there's the mysterious MP who shows up with an unusual interest in a married returnee.

One thing I like about this series is that Clare is an Episcopal priest (Russ is the chief of police), but she doesn't live in the ideal world of Christian fiction. The people in Millers Kill are real people, not perfect cardboard cutouts. This includes Clare. But this book ramps up the sex and profanity to a level I don't remember being in the earlier books. It was a bit disturbing to see the number of times the Lord's name was taken in vain. I'm not a prude and I understand that OMG has become a text message with no thought as to what the meaning is. I just found the language a bit much.

And the fact that Clare didn't express any conflict over her behavior as far as her faith was concerned. In earlier books, her faith was central to who she was. Here it just seemed an afterthought. She might as well have been a librarian or a schoolteacher.

With that one caveat, I highly recommend this book. I literally could not put it down Sunday afternoon until I had gotten to the end. It's been a while since I felt that way about a book. Now to find another one that will keep me just as involved.
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