Yes, Clare Fergusson has come back from deployment in Iraq in One Was a Soldier: A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mystery (Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries). After eighteen months as a helicopter pilot, it's back to a life in Millers Kill that is familiar yet forever changed because Clare, like other returnees from combat zones, can't shake the memories, flashbacks, and nightmares. Changed because she's using uppers and downers to get on with her civilian life as an Episcopol priest. Changed because when she and police chief Russ Van Alstyne reunite, she hides her true state and pretends she is "fine."
She isn't alone, of course. Other returning military men and women have similar readjustment problems. So, the novel opens on September 5 with the first session of Sarah Dowling's licensed clinical therapy group which consists of five reticent Millers Kill vets, including Clare. To fill in the reader on what's happened to these people since they returned a few months ago, the story rewinds and that, for example, is how we see Russ welcoming Clare home on June 24. At first: "She didn't leap into his arms. they had been circumspect for so long, always standing apart, controlling their eyes and hands like nuns in a medieval abbey." That was at the armory. Somehow they (especially Clare) become much less nun-like in Russ' truck.
ONE WAS A SOLDIER concerns itself with the personal dramas of small-town American war veterans, their struggles, their despair, their anger, their fear, their secretiveness. We see what befalls Clare and the four others in Sarah's group. We watch them hurt themselves and others. We watch them lie. We watch them act like hormone-crazed teenagers. We also watch them band together as brothers and sisters in arms when one of them dies under suspicious circumstances.
Unlike other novels in the Clare/Russ series, this one, perhaps mindful of the greater and real Sturm und Drang in Iraq (and Afghanistan) doesn't coalesce into a Wagnerian climax of overriding violence. Oh, it certainly has its moments of sorrow and irrevocable acts, and an international, complex criminal case slowly comes to light. But at its core, the changed lives of the returned vets make this book.
Sometimes I think that this wonderful series could have done more with the relationship trajectory of Russ and Clare. More than once previous volumes have ended at points that could have spelled the end for them. Yet, the next novel generally would not explore that created rift as deeply as it might have. I think this is true of ONE WAS A SOLDIER. Although it makes sense that after eighteen months, they would be happy to see one another, I was a little surprised by the relative ease with which they handled the next "big" question. Don't get me wrong; it's rather comforting that these two can be such different people and yet not totally spazz when they confront obstacles in their way. Still, sometimes I feel as though the author has intentionally avoided letting them grapple as they might have with such things as guilt over Linda (the late Mrs. Van Alstyne).
Speaking of Linda, she and many other characters who graced previous books in this series, are either mentioned or, when possible, make cameo appearances in ONE WAS A SOLDIER. This is a nice unifying touch and very much appreciated.
Louise Penny, author of her own series, the most recent one being the outstanding Bury Your Dead: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (Chief Inspector Gamache Novels), is quoted by Spencer-Fleming's publishers on the cover of ONE WAS A SOLDIER: "An absolute tour de force! The best yet in a brilliant series. I loved it!" I don't know whether I'd go quite as far -- I'm not sure this is the best...but it is a formidable, engrossing entry in this great series. It explores an important current topic (how our returning troops do or don't cope) and it once again allows Clare/Russ fans to enjoy more precious scenes between them (though, I think I could have done without that teenage moment in the truck!).
Now the burning question is: how Russ and Clare will deal with the little, personal bombshell that concluded ONE WAS A SOLDIER. In order that we may find out, may the talented Julia Spencer-Fleming be blessed with further intricate and compelling stories to tell in Millers Kill.
It's been close to 2 years since the author has had a new book out - we've been away from Miller's Kill as long as Clare has been away in Iraq. And while it's been a long time coming, this book was definitely worth the wait.
Other reviewers have done an excellent job of describing the plot of this book. As with her other books, this book is a series of layers - there is the mystery of the apparent suicide of a member of a Veteran's support group to which Clare belongs. There is also the story of Clare and her struggles with returning to civilian life (and the struggles of many veterans). And for many of us readers, a large part of our enjoyment of this series is the continuing development of Russ and Clare's romance/relationship. As in previous books, the author does a wonderful job of interweaving all these elements. There was never a time in reading this book that I felt any of these elements were shortchanged.
Is this book perfect? Darn close. I had some minor nits - I agree with other reviewers that Clare and Russ seemed to return to their relationship quickly. But honestly, this is one of those books where you just want to find a place and read it from start to finish with no interruptions.
If you've never read any of the books in this series, don't start with this book. Do yourself a favor and start with the first book in her series (In the Bleak Midwinter) and read all her books in order. While this book is a self-contained mystery, the growth and relationship of the lead characters is really a huge part of this series and you'll miss out on a large part of the enjoyment of this book if you start the series with this book.
Clare Fergusson returns from an 18-month tour in Iraq and Russ Van Alstyne is still waiting, just as Spencer-Fleming's loyal readers waited for this long overdue volume in the series. I was not disappointed: it's one of the best mysteries I've read in a long time.
The story is framed by therapy sessions for a group of veterans at a local community center, led by a valiant but slightly naive counselor. She's surprised to find they know each other but the participants seem used to these small-town interactions. As the plot progresses, the group members become entwined in each other's lives. Spencer-Fleming makes it easy to follow the stories of characters as diverse as a teenage Marine amputee, a cop with anger management issues, a physician with a head wound, a young woman who's guarding secrets and of course Clare herself.
The mystery begins when a young woman dies, apparently a suicide. Russ's investigation turns up a complex story that ultimately involves just about everyone in the original community therapy group. There's definitely a mystery to solve, but the novel's focus is on the returning veterans. The author doesn't flinch from the realities of damaged lives and the resistance to psychological help. At one point one of the characters points out that many military service people come from small towns like this one. They're often from families that can't afford college. The military is their escape. I was reminded of the wonderful movie, Taking Chance. I was also reminded of stories about young people who join the Guard to get benefits and end up in situations way over their heads.
Because the novel focuses on so many diverse characters, we get less time with Clare than I might have liked. Often we see her from the outside, as when the therapist sees Clare as a "helper." I agree with another reviewer who would like to see more discussion of the nuances of the relationship between Russ and Clare. We get lots of information about their intimate relationship but not enough background to make them fully three-dimensional. For instance, Clare talks about her mother but we never meet the families of the couple, even in scenes where they appear but are not named.
I would also agree that Clare and Russ seem to move back into their relationship very quickly after the 18-month separation. I'd expect Clare to need more time to adjust from her role as combat helicopter pilot to priest. Wouldn't her congregation give her a welcome party?
Just a few minor quibbles. A major in a combat zone earns a decent salary and there aren't many ways to spend the money. She would have accrued leave, too. Yet there's no mention of Clare's enhanced financial status and no reason for her to drive a beat-up truck. In one scene there's mention that Russ has to buy a new home or pay taxes on his old one, but that would be true only if he'd lived there less than two years, as far as I know.
If you're into comparing mystery authors, Nevada Barr's heroine Anna Pigeon is also a non-believer who marries an Episcopal priest/sheriff; Clare, a priest/army officer marries a cop. One of Kate Charles's heroines is a English Episcopal curate who dates an Italian cop. Is there a trend here?
Finally, Spencer-Fleming likes to drop a bomb in the last paragraph of her books. This one is huge. Let's hope we don't have to wait two years to learn what's next!
on May 9, 2011
I had to think long and hard about what to say in the review. I realize that my expectations may have been unrealistic, given the prolonged wait for the book, but I found it disappointing. I think it could have been an excellent novel about the costs (physical and emotional) of war, but it wasn't much of a mystery. I think Spencer-Fleming wanted to address these broader issues, and did so at length (sometimes for too long and repetitively), and this was ultimately to the detriment of producing a gripping and tightly paced mystery, as have been the previous books in this series. I think it's fine that she wants to "stretch" and write a different kind of novel, but I ended up feeling that a little "bait and switch" had gone on -- I was expecting a mystery, not a polemic on the lasting horrors and sorrows of war. There were times during reading this book that I felt bored -- which was a surprise for me, as I think Spencer-Fleming is a highly talented writer, but maybe she felt boxed-in and frustrated having to observe the form and constraints of a mystery, while also trying to explore these greater societal themes, and it just ran away with her. Also, perhaps it was intentional, and a side-effect of her addiction to amphetamines, but I found Claire to be extremely grating and annoying in this book -- really pushing the boundaries for a sympathetic character. What before have been endearing characteristics (self-confidence, assertiveness, and curiousity/nosiness about others), were pushed to such extremes to almost be a parody of the Claire we have come to know and love. I sincerely hope that for the next outing, if there is one, that Spencer-Fleming either stick to writing a mystery or else write a literary novel, which is what she seems to want to do.
I've been a fan of this series for several years and had pre-ordered this book back before it was delayed a year due to a missed deadline. So my anticipation built up for an extra year and I was headed for disappointment. After all, many of my other favorite long-time running series have been disappointing me the last couple of years. I won't name them here, but it is tempting!
So I started reading One Was a Soldier the day it arrived on my doorstep. And I read it through in one day and was satisfied. Yes, it has some flaws--all books do--but they were considerably outnumbered by the overall excellence of the book. Spencer-Fleming writes a good mystery--this wasn't her strongest, but it's fine--and centers her characters in the real world. This novel is more about soldiers coming home from deployment which can be a tough topic but was adeptly managed here to avoid too many cliches or depression. After all, I read this series overall for entertainment. I do want to think and be challenged, but not depressed. That balance was achieved for me.
Most importantly, many of my favorite characters are back. What Spencer-Fleming does best is create an entire town of people you know and care about. Each person is an individual and does not get confusing even if character names are similar. That's a feat. It's not a cozy mystery although cozy fans will probably enjoy it, but the characters are just as important as the story. I thought the device of the support group meetings introducing the continuing elements of the story worked well and I admit those kind of devices often bore or frustrate me if they aren't done well. The character growth and development made sense even if it felt some were becoming stagnant and others took a step or two backwards. However, the effects of being a soldier explained that for some of the characters. I don't want to give anything away.
If you are a fan of the series, I think you'll be as happy as I was. If you aren't, this book would be fine for starting but it is definitely HIGHLY RECOMMENDED to start at the beginning and enjoy the entire journey. Be warned, that there is also a cliffhanger ending as well as some unresolved relationships that make the long wait for the next book another bittersweet challenge for the series' fans.
To say the least this is the best of the series since the first book. Though we all knew there was going to be a wedding sometime in this volume of the series, I didn't think it would end up as being secondary to the story. The story is just about as well plotted and written as you could want a mystery to be. The great part of the story is that the mystery itself is almost anti-climactic, it's what leads up to the mystery that makes the story.
Clare has returned from her tour of duty in Iraq. It was much rougher than she expected, and has taken a toll on her that even she doesn't admit. Russ has done and is doing everything he can to help her re-settle in but some things need to work themselves out over time no matter how much we try. Psychic trauma is what most soldiers suffer during war, but the war in Iraq is not like any war we have fought before.
In 'Nam there were the jungles, the bugs, the fly swarms, booby-trapped houses and bodies, and man-traps; but when you got back to your base, you always felt it was a safe haven, and you could get over to Cam Rahm and China Beach and have a few days where you felt you were back in the States. The is NO front line in Iraq, there are NO lines in Iraq; I've been told you never feel safe anywhere. Think of the stress of having to be on edge 24/7 for nine months and then be told your being 'extended' for three months.
In a way, EVERY soldier, sailor, marine, airmen who comes back from Iraq and/or Afghanistan suffers from some type of PTSD. Spencer-Fleming has done a fabulous job in describing in words the feels of the five members of Clare's veterans support group. This is how those in the military feel after this type of deployment, if you haven't been there you can't describe it. In World War One they described it as seeing the "Elephant", you do or you don't, there is NO half-measure. You never forget it or get over it, the best you can do is get past it and move on.
The story is great, but the real worth of this novel is what it says about us and the people we send to war.
First off, let me say that this book eventually turns into a superb detective story, so if you find yourself getting bogged down early on, keep in mind the "superb" and the "eventually."
This is the seventh in a series. Because at least 50-percent--probably more--of its huge popularity centers on the evolution of the love story between Clare, the Episcopal priest, and Russ, the police chief, of a small New England town...and because the trajectory of their romance, from forbidden to not forbidden, has been a rough and complex one, I strongly recommend newcomers start this series from the very beginning--with "In the Bleak Midwinter" and go on from there, chronologically. (The exception being, those of you who couldn't care less about romantic mush and are instead most interested in finding a novel with a really good PTSD storyline; in which case continue on; you've come to the right place).
Roughly the first third of this book tells of five soldiers just returned from Iraq--all of them seriously messed up by that experience, each in his or her own way: a surgeon whose memory is way out of whack; a bookkeeper who's juggling a husband, a boyfriend and a very dangerous secret; a young double amputee afraid to release his pent up anger; a good and respected cop whose temper has suddenly gone off the rails; and the helicopter pilot-heroine of this series, who is now deep into using drink and drugs to maintain the appearance of "normal." They're all scared, they're all putting most of their energies into denying and hiding the truth about themselves and each is failing badly at it in his or her own way. Telling their stories takes up a lot of space. But hang in there, longtime Spencer-Fleming fans, and in its own good time, this will become the kind of nail-biter Clare-Russ detective story that you've come to expect from Spencer-Fleming--maybe even the best one of all, and the troubled ex-soldiers will each have an important role to play in it.
After getting to know the Iraq returnees, and a two-year wait, fans may also need to reacquaint themselves with the series's regular supporting players and their recent histories, along with a pretty big added cast of story-specific characters--both civilian and military--who may or may not turn out to be the bad guys. Getting and keeping that vast who's who straight in your head should give your short term memory a good workout. That many of them--depending on who's talking--sometimes go by first names, sometimes by surnames and sometimes by titles or rank--won't make it any easier. But it's worth it, so you'll do it.
So--the big questions, apart from the who done it and why and how: What impact will Clare's PTSD have on her relationship with Russ? Where is that relationship headed from here? And was the two-year wait for this book worth it? You don't want me to answer the first two and I won't. But the last one gets a huge yes from this reader.
I've been enjoying Julia Spencer-Fleming's series of mysteries set in a small Catskills town called Miller's Kill for a while now. It's always hard to keep a series fresh but S-F has done a good job of providing enough twists and turns in her plots without making anyone act in a way at odds with their carefully-drawn characters. I was happy to see that S-F hasn't lost her touch with "One Was A Soldier." Her seventh outing features Clare Fergusson, a former army helicopter pilot-turned-Episcopal priest who at the end of the last novel enlisted for a tour of duty in Iraq; and Chief of Police Russ van Alstyne, former Army MP who heads the small Miller's Kill police department. This oddball duo -- who have gone from friends to lovers during the course of the last six books -- somehow works, never straining credulity as Van Alstyne investigates cases and Fergusson tags along, sometimes helping and sometimes hindering. As this installment in the series opens, Fergusson is returning from her 18-month tour of duty and it quickly becomes apparent that Clare has suffered a great deal emotionally, showing signs of PTSD as well as addiction. S-F does a good job of portraying Fergusson's return to society, by turns sweet and anguished, as she struggles with vivid memories, nightmares, addiction and the other aftermath of her combat service. Fergusson's return to society is shown against the backdrop of her small veteran's support group. We see how the varied experiences of its members haunt them, taking different psychic tolls on them as they re-enter society. In some respects, the investigation into the death of another member of this support group -- Clare thinks it's murder, while Russ thinks it's suicide -- is secondary to the darker emotional issues surrounding the group of wounded vets.
I enjoyed this installment of the series a great deal; fans of the series will not be disappointed. There's a good mystery connected to the possible suicide/possible murder, and the emotional lives of the characters are equally compelling. S-F leaves the book with a cliffhanger of sorts, sure to take the plot of future books in an interesting direction. One quick note: I do hope the next Miller's Kill book will feature more of the relationship between Hadley & Flynn; while they feature prominently throughout this book, I'd love to see them interact more now that the main detecting duo are married.
on May 24, 2011
This is the best in the series! Start with:In the Bleak Midwinter (A Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mystery).
The publisher's blurb sets the scene:
"On a warm September evening in the Millers Kill community center, five veterans sit down in rickety chairs to try to make sense of their experiences in Iraq. The Rev. Clare Fergusson wants to forget the things she saw as a combat helicopter pilot and concentrate on her relationship with Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne. MP Eric McCrea needs to control the explosive anger threatening his job as a police officer. Will Ellis, high school track star, faces the reality of life as a double amputee. Orthopedist Trip Stillman is denying the extent of his traumatic brain injury. And bookkeeper Tally McNabb wrestles with guilt over the in-country affair that may derail her marriage. But coming home is harder than it looks. One vet will struggle with drugs and alcohol. One will lose his family and friends. One will die.
Since their first meeting, Russ and Clare's bond has been tried, torn, and forged by adversity. But when he rules the veteran's death a suicide, she violently rejects his verdict, drawing the surviving vets into an unorthodox investigation that threatens jobs, relationships, and her own future with Russ. As the days cool and the nights grow longer, they will uncover a trail of deceit that runs from their tiny town to the upper ranks of the U.S. Army and from the waters of the Millers Kill to the unforgiving streets of Baghdad."
Although the author's over-use of vulgarity weakens her written word, one of Spencer-Fleming's strengths is her prose style. There are over twenty words and phrases describing the human voice, and sometimes an animal's voice. For example:
"He could hear her talking, shrill and distant, like a bird afraid of a stranger under her nest."
At times Spencer-Fleming creates phrases, for example, "early modern valium," but it works:
"The waiting room was done in early modern valium, all mellow colors and soft lights. The well-sprung modular seating said: 'Stretch out here and have a nap. Everything will be fine.'"
At the core of ONE WAS A SOLDIER is the courage and compassion of the military and the tellling of their stories. It is not to be back-seated for a mere body or two in a mystery story.
It is about police officer, Eric McCrea:
"The pedestrians bothered him. He was ok with people walking, and he was relaxed as he ever was with other drivers when he was behind the wheel. But, driving past pedestrians, getting flickering views of faces, back packs, hands, shopping bags, made his shoulders bunch up around his ears and his scalp tighten."
It is about high school track star, Will Ellis.
He is a parishioner of Rev. Clare's and she reminds him:
"Anger just is. . . . We're all so in love with the idea of moving on and growing through loss and making lemonade when life hands us lemons that we don't take time to mourn. Before you can move on, you have to stand still and account for what's been lost. Sometimes you have to throw the . . . lemons against the wall and yell, 'I wanted chocolae chip cookies, not this bitter fruit.'"
And finally, it is about Rev Clare Fergusseon. She says to Will: "There are a lot of us who came back wounded, some of us just don't show it on the outside."
Clare draws upon her faith in God. With a touch of humor in her voice she asserts: "That's my civilian job, I'm God."
But Clare draws upon her faith in Russ as well:
"He just stood there. His grip warm and steady.
Letting her hold the truth in her hands, letting her raise it up and swallow it was cold, very cold, and no amount of sugar could sweeten its bitter taste. . . . Russ looked at her, looked into her, inviting her to lay down all her lies and deep-dive into the truth with him. She couldn't face that bottomless well. 'I'm afraid.' He wrapped his arms around her."
This book is not to be missed. It is narrated once again by Suzanne Toren. I had forgotten how perfectly she delivers a Virginia accent. Thank you.
Although this book continues the story of Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne, it takes a different tone. Clare, an Episcopalian priest, is also a helicopter pilot, recently returned from Iraq. With other returnees she takes part in group counseling sessions aimed at helping them deal with problems that have followed them home from Iraq.
Russ, chief of police in Miller's Kill, a small town in northern New York State, is Clare's lover and friend. Their growing relationship is told in the earlier books of the series. Their opposing views on local law enforcement continues without affecting their devotion to each other.
The handling of the veterans and their problems was done very well-no simplistic solutions, no sudden cures, just hard, slogging effort to recover the peace of mind lost in the war's ugliness.
There is a death, a solution of the cause, but a very believable blurring of justice and political necessity. This is a very good book, and I recommend it to all who enjoy a good story and a feeling of reality.