Tuesday, June 21, 2011

One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 2011

The brunette braced her hands on her thighs. "My name's Mary McNabb, but everyone calls me Tally." She looked at Stillman. "Sorta like you, I guess. I was formerly a specialist, formerly in the United States Army."

"Where did you serve, Tally?"

"Camp Anaconda."

That got some whistles from the rest. "Mortaritaville," Fergusson said.

"Yeah, well." McNabb ran her hands through her short hair.

Stillman snapped his fingers. "Mary McNabb. Fractured left ankle. A car dropped on you?"

McNabb laughed. "I was helping my husband fix it up for resale. I'm impressed you remember."

Sarah put up her hands again. "Wait." She looked around the circle. "Do you all know each other?"

They looked at each other. They looked at her. "Yes," they all said.

"It's a very small town." Clare Fergusson's voice was dry.
---(page 6)

Julia Spencer-Fleming has gotten enormously good at the formula of her novels. I'm not saying they're formulaic (because they really aren't), but that she has, over the course of the last few books in the series, found a perfect balance between mystery, romance, thriller and drama.

One Was a Soldier, the latest in her continuing Millers Kill saga, is another rock-solid novel, darker and more intricate than I Shall Not Want, heavy on character interaction and light on action. As always the pacing is pretty much flawless, the dialogue is sharp and the characters continually display fresh layers.

After a year and a half in Iraq flying helicopters, Clare returns to Russ and Millers Kill pretending not to be suffering from harrowing flashbacks and an increasing dependence on sleeping pills. Clare joins a local veterans support group, hoping to heal herself before her post-traumatic stress disorder interferes with her relationship with Russ, but finds herself set against the man she loves when one of the group dies under mysterious circumstances. Russ rules the death a suicide, while Clare is convinced that it was murder, and only a small part of a dangerous conspiracy.

The mystery plot is not the main event here; it's more of an interesting sidebar to accompany the larger story of the returning veterans and their struggles to reintegrate into the world of Millers Kill. Spencer-Fleming introduces a few new characters and fleshes out some existing ones, too, like Eric McCrea and Trip Stillman. Like most of Spencer-Fleming's writing choices, it's a smart move to give some of the supporting characters some room to shine. She clearly knows that readers would get bored if it all they got was Russ/Clare interaction.

The Russ/Clare interaction is pretty darn good, though. By now, Spencer-Fleming knows exactly how to portray their relationship, which goes through some interesting permutations in this volume. Clare in particular goes down a compelling, and surprisingly dark, path. It's a testament to Spencer-Fleming's control of her characters and narrative that she can make unorthodox choices seem logical and in-character.

The series' other major character pairing, Hadley/Kevin, doesn't get quite as much attention as it did in I Shall Not Want (the veterans group story takes up too much space), but there's enough development to be satisfying. Kevin Flynn continues to be Spencer-Fleming's ace in the hole, and many of the book's best moments, both comic and romantic, come from his naivete and kind nature.

As always, Spencer-Fleming experiments with a slightly different style (she's also used flashbacks, real-time and in media res). Here, the narrative is jumbled and somewhat nonlinear, as well as wider in scope than some of the previous books, involving more characters than the core cast and a larger plot.

Spencer-Fleming is very good at keeping her mystery plots both varied and plausible, and Soldier has an excellent one. There is a touch of that mid-book sagging that so many mysteries have, but I really liked the fact that the mystery served the emotional drama rather than the other way around. Small doses of action throughout make up for the lack of a wild and crazy showdown at the end. Also: setting up a potential Big Bad for the series in John Opperman? Inspired, and a terrific use of the already-established continuity.

One Was a Soldier definitely doesn't have the emotional train-crash/instant classic aspects of All Mortal Flesh and its plot is not the best of the series, but it still easily stands as one of the series' strongest novels. Spencer-Fleming's writing is as clear and strong as ever and her sense of character has never been better. A final-sentence twist (admittedly, a fairly predictable one) sets up the next book with aplomb. This is one series that shows no signs of flagging quality, even seven books in.

NEXT UP: Due to my full re-read of the Harry Potter series, I haven't updated this blog for a while. Never fear! I'm currently working on a couple of books, including A Feast for Crows and Anne Perry's The Face of a Stranger.

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