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ONE WAS A SOLDIER


By Julia Spencer-Fleming

St. Martin's Minotaur, 2011 ($24.99)
ISBN-10: 0312334893
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-33489-5

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

Before Clare Fergusson became an Episcopal priest, she was a soldier, flying helicopters in the first Gulf War. In the years since then, she built a life for herself in the small New York town of Millers Kill, tending to her flock and developing a tumultuous relationship with Russ Van Alstyne, the married Chief of Police. After his wife died in a car crash, Clare and Russ were finally able to act on their feelings, but before they could figure out where their relationship was going, Clare's National Guard unit was called up and she deployed to Iraq.

A year and a half later Clare returns, pretending to herself that her experiences have left no scars. She is wrong: as the saying goes, "in war, there are no unwounded soldiers." Russ, who served in Vietnam and the First Gulf War, struggles to understand and help her deal with her pain, but she won't acknowledge that her drinking and pill popping are becoming a serious problem. She is a care taker, after all, and she can take care of herself as well as others.

As a favor to a friend, she agrees to attend a support group for recently returned veterans. Millers Kill is a small town, and Clare knows all the group members. Her friend's son, Will Ellis, was a high school athlete. He puts on a bright face during the group sessions, but his mother knows that the loss of his legs have crippled him emotionally as well as physically. Eric McCrea, one of Millers Kill's best police officers, carries a load of anger that threatens both his job and his family life. Tally McNabb, who was a bookkeeper in Iraq, returns to her job at a local luxury hotel, weighed down by guilt over an affair she had in-country. Trip Stillman, an orthopedist, tries to tell himself that his memory lapses and confusion are symptoms of PTSD, refusing to face the truth that may end his career.

Troubling events occur, including suicide attempts, financial crimes, and murders, all linked in some way to the members of the group. Clare and Russ butt heads over what he sees as clearly a suicide. She is convinced it's a murder, and she takes off on her own investigation, straining their relationship even further. Some of the group members help her, while others become entangled in their own war-related struggles.

Spencer-Fleming, an Air Force brat, is the winner of several major awards, all richly deserved. Every book in this series has been enthralling. The development of Clare's and Russ's relationship has been at the heart of each story, and the author has made them vividly, achingly real. Will true love win out in the end? Will honor and bravery overcome the pain of the wounded warriors? Read this beautifully written book and find out. This is by far the best in her Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series. It will be hard for the author to top it, but the ending hints that she just might.

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