‘One Was A Soldier’ (Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alystyne mystery #7) by Julia Spencer-Fleming

‘One Was A Soldier’ was my seventh visit to Millers Kill in Upstate New York in the company of Episcopalian priest and National Guard Major and combat helicopter pilot Clare Fergusson and local Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne. It’s hard to credit but, with each book, the series gets better. There’s no repetition, no padding and very little that’s predictable about any of the books other than that Clare is going to find herself in the middle of something difficult and possibly dangerous and that someone in Millers Kill is going to die.

Julia Spencer-Fleming has a gift for making topical, difficult issues personal and by doing so, moving them from abstract discussions based on politics and received wisdom into something about our shared humanity, our response to weakness and strength and our willingness to ask for and give help. That she manages to wrap an engaging mystery around the and keep developing an ensemble cast of characters is remarkable.

The issue this time is the impact being sent into a war zone has on the men and women who serve and the challenges faced by them and the people who care about them when they try to reintegrate themselves into their family, job and community while dealing with things that those who weren’t there will never understand.

This is a well-known issue that we’ve perhaps become desensitised to. Julia Spencer-Fleming makes it real by showing what happens to people we’ve already met in previous books and care about and by introducing some new people who we come to know mainly through the challenges they face. to people who are new to the series. We see how each person struggles with something different and personal and how their struggle is seen by and affects the people around them.

In an inspired move, we get to see Clare Ferguson finally being in danger of breaking under the burden of her combat experiences. Julia Spencer-Fleming lets us see this from a distance by introducing a counsellor who sees Clare without any knowledge of her background, by letting us see how Clare sees herself and by seeing her through Russ Van Alstyne’s eyes. Clare has come back from her eighteen-month tour of duty with nightmares about what she did there and an addiction to prescription drugs that she’s not confronting. Seeing Clare so close to being broken and yet still being so much herself was a sign of how richly crafted her character is.

The story centres around two things: a set of people in group counselling to help them deal with the stress created by their experiences and a slowly-revealed plot about a major crime. The link between the two is Claire’s refusal to accept that the death of one of her counselling group was a suicide and Russ’ conviction that it was a suicide but that something else is going on.

In the background, the relationships between the main characters continue to develop, Clare’s mother drives forward the plans for Clare’s wedding, Clare becomes less and less certain that she’s worthy of marriage and our rookie from the previous books has returned all grown up.

The things I love most about these books are that they are about real issues affecting people I’ve come to care about and that each book has a mystery at its centre that I get engaged in and has plot twists that nearly always surprise me. ‘One Was A Soldier’ delivered on all fronts.

I started this series in January 2019 and I’ve almost caught up with their publication. There are only two books left that I haven’t read. So I’m rationing them. I’ll wait until January before I let myself read book eight, ‘Through The Evil Days’.

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