At the end of A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD, Julia Spencer-Fleming's previous installment in her award-winning mystery series starring police chief Russ Van Alstyne and Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson, Clare was called up to service in Iraq, interrupting the couple's burgeoning physical relationship, the culmination of a complicated love that has grown over the course of several novels.
At the beginning of ONE WAS A SOLDIER, Clare is on her way home from the front, and Russ is eager to make an honest woman of her, secretly carrying an engagement ring in his pocket. But Clare is carrying her own dark secrets --- nightmares that make her afraid to fall asleep; her tendency to drink too much and to combine her whiskey with pills that help her sleep or just help her cope; and her fear that she can't live up to the admittedly fabulous Linda, Russ's late wife.
Clare, who is used to being the caretaker rather than the victim, doesn't know how to admit weakness to herself, let alone Russ or the other members of her veterans' support group. But she becomes close with the other members of the group, who all carry their own scars despite their varying ages and experiences. So when one of them turns up dead, Clare is determined to solve the mystery, both to distract herself from her own demons and to feel like her old competent, helping self again.
To make matters more complicated, Russ doesn't believe there's a mystery to solve at all. But where he sees an open-and-shut case, Clare sees possibility --- and soon the two of them are going at the problem from different ends. Will the two meet in the middle? Or will their differences of opinion result in greater rifts between the reunited lovers?
Just as in long-running television series based on unfulfilled romantic tension, authors like Julia Spencer-Fleming face daunting challenges when their long-suffering romantic leads finally get together. ONE WAS A SOLDIER, however, proves that her protagonists still have plenty of room in which to grow and develop, both as individuals and as a couple. Clare's damaged psyche makes her both a more challenging and a more compelling character, and Russ's growing awareness of the differences between Clare and Linda makes him more complex, too.
In recent installments, Spencer-Fleming wisely introduced a new pair of up-and-coming young police officers with plenty of sexual tension of their own. The combination of these characters with Russ and Clare's constantly evolving relationship will continue to draw in readers who enjoy romantic, character-driven mysteries. More than that, though, Spencer-Fleming has never been afraid to grapple with difficult moral and ethical issues. ONE WAS A SOLDIER addresses these topics frankly and fearlessly, with regard not only to sex and relationships but also to violence, loyalty and war.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 18, 2011