Title: One Was a Soldier
Author: Julia Spencer-Fleming
Release Date: April 12, 2011
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Rating: 4 out of 5
Warning: This review may contain spoilers for the previous book in the series, I Shall Not Want.
Clare Fergusson has returned from Iraq to the town of Miller’s Kill, and is finding it difficult to readjust to her old life. She loves being around Russ Van Alstyne, the Chief of Police, but she is having trouble just getting through each day without the help of alcohol. She decides to attend a veteran’s group and bonds with the other Miller’s Kill residents that have returned from a war zone. But when one of their group dies, and Chief Van Alstyne rules it a suicide, Clare must fight for the friend she knew and conduct her own investigation.
One Was a Soldier isn’t really a mystery, like the other Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne novels. Sure, it has a mystery buried within it, but it doesn’t come to light until at least halfway through the novel. Instead, this book is exactly what its title says it is - it’s about Clare being a soldier. Now that she has returned, she feels completely alone. Russ helps with that, somewhat, but she doesn’t know how to function in society anymore. Her nightmares prevent her from sleeping, and she’s barely getting by, but on the surface, she appears to be fine.
The only people who can sympathize with Clare are those who have experienced the exact same thing - the veterans she finds in her support group. It’s almost physically painful to read about how traumatized Clare is. By this point in the series, readers know Clare in and out. They know her hopes and dreams, and also her fears. To see her this damaged seems just as difficult as experiencing it with a close friend or a loved one. It’s a testament to how realistic Spencer-Fleming’s characters are, that she provokes such an emotional response from readers.
Once the mystery develops in One Was a Soldier, it is certainly engaging, but it’s not the real focus of the story. It’s secondary. I loved the focus on Clare and trying to get into the mindset of a soldier, as well as the exploration of the aftereffects of war and lack of services for vets. However, one thing I love about Spencer-Fleming’s novels is the meaty mystery portion, and it was a bit lacking in this One Was a Soldier. That’s not to say it wasn’t interesting, just that it wasn’t what I expected.
I appreciated the risk that Spencer-Fleming took with One Was a Soldier, and I think it paid off. Clare has changed quite a bit from the beginning of the series, and I also appreciate that Russ and Clare have developed their relationship as well. Spencer-Fleming isn’t afraid to shake up her premise, and it makes for a great reading experience. I can’t wait to see where she takes these characters next.