If there’s a writer who can credibly manage the issue-based murder mystery, that writer is Julia Spencer-Fleming — but it’s a project fraught with difficulty. We read murder mysteries to escape. That doesn’t mean they all have to be set in England between the wars and to star old ladies in flowered hats. But the fiction must operate as a coherent alternative reality, and the problem comes when you sense your author manipulating the storytelling in order to make a point. Late in One Was a Soldier, a character says, “Your little burg’s not a military town, that’s true, but it’s the kind of town where the military comes from. Small, rural, not much opportunity, right? How many of your young people join up to get away?” Julia Spencer-Fleming calls herself an army brat, so she knows the ways of the military. What’s more, those of us who’ve read this wonderful series surely do so partly because her portrayal of small-town upstate New York feels so authentic; “the kind of town where the military comes from.” My problem with One Was Soldier was that it felt ever so slightly schematic.
Spencer-Fleming’s unifying device is a veterans’ support group, led by a therapist named Sarah who is never granted much of a character: she’s really a fly on the wall. The veterans in the group represent various branches of the service, socioeconomic groups, and kinds of damage suffered in Iraq or Afghanistan; young Will, a former track star, lost his legs to an IED. Trip Stillman, an orthopedist at the local hospital, suffered traumatic brain injury. And that rangy helicopter pilot in black — why, that’s the Reverend Clare Fergusson, back from 18 months flying a helicopter and addicted to a mess of substances.
Of course once the story’s under way, everything is fine. Clare and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne pick up where they left off, in their sexually charged and emotionally plausible romance. Spencer-Fleming’s done a great job of keeping them apart but that can’t last forever, so I was thrilled with the way she’s invented a new romance between two youngsters in the Millers Kill Police Department, the hottie Hadley Knox and red-haired rookie Kevin Flynn. I was absorbed in the plot until, around halfway through, I realized that no crime had occurred yet. But I was wrong — Spencer-Fleming is very good at this, and she’d gotten the criminal proceedings under way while ostensibly focusing on the veterans’ therapy group.
And one thing that’s consistently admirable about these books is that, though they are entertaining, Spencer-Fleming doesn’t flinch away from the hard stuff. Clare has flashbacks. Young Will Ellis has to adjust to a harsher future. Attractive characters die. I can see why the author was drawn to this material and she handles it as well as anyone could. The effects of war on a town like Millers Kill are as real as the effects of the weather or the faltering economy. And if Julia Spencer-Fleming wants to use her fiction to draw our attention to an all-too-real issue, in the end I have to admire the way she does it.