The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


September 4, 2011

Patty Crane, book review: Murder mystery also deals with returning soldiers’ issues

JOPLIN, Mo. — Julia Spencer-Fleming began the Reverend Clare Fergusson mystery series six novels ago. Clare Fergusson came to Millers Kill,stet New York as the first woman priest at the St. Alban’s Episcopalian Church in the first novel, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

After finding an abandoned baby at the church Clare calls the chief of police, Russ Van Alstyne, and the relationship that drives this series begins. Clare and Russ find the body of the baby’s mother and set out to find the murderer.

In this and later novels, searching for the truth often puts Clare in conflict with her church. The former Army helicopter pilot turned priest does not always do things the way her congregation feels is proper.  

Even though church rituals, Clare’s faith, and Russ’ lack of it figure prominently in the series, this is not inspirational fiction. These are fast-paced, suspenseful murder mysteries with characters of depth that you’ll want to read about again.  

In the seventh addition to the series, “One Was a Soldier,” the characters take center stage. Clare and several other citizens of Millers Kill return from tours of duty in Iraq. At first the story moves back and forth between when they return and months later at a returning vets support group.

We start at the support group where we are introduced to each of the vets: Dr. George Stillman served with a forward surgical team in Mosul, Will Ellis lost both his legs below the knee to a bomb, Eric McCrea was a MP on prisoner detail at Camp Bucca, Mary “Tally” McNabb was a specialist at Camp Anaconda and Clare was with the 142nd Aviation Support squad flying out of Ramadi, Tikrit and Kirkuk.

Each has returned home to resume their life, but even though they’ve returned to Millers Kill, Iraq is still with them. As the story unfolds,  all of them are trying to carry on as normal and cope with feelings and fears they cannot control.

SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to read the series, please skip the rest of this review and go to the library and check out “In the Bleak Midwinter.” You’ll want to follow the relationship between Clare and Russ from the beginning, through all its twists and turns, to “One Was a Soldier.”  

Clare is eager to reunite with Russ and continue the relationship they started before she left for Iraq. She steps back into her duties at St. Albans and her not-so-secret love affair with Russ as if everything is fine.

Russ knows she drinks more than she used to but doesn’t know she needs a pill to go to sleep at night and another to get her through the day. As their relationship moves to the next level and Clare’s clerical duties increase she becomes more dependent on pills and alcohol to get through the day.

In a bid to help Will cope with the loss of his legs and a personal acknowledgment that she is not all right, Clare agrees to go with Will to the support group. The group slowly forms a bond talking around their issues of guilt, rage, depression, and forgetfulness. A suicide attempt by one of their group draws them even closer together.

Then a member of their group dies of a gunshot wound. Russ and the police department rule it a suicide.

Clare cannot accept that ruling. She and her support group decide to investigate the death themselves.

When the Army shows up looking for millions of dollars missing from Iraq, the case becomes even more complicated. As the group probes deeper into the death they begin finding ways to come to terms with what they saw, what they did and with what they now have to live.

While this is a good murder mystery with lots of twists, it is also a tribute to returning vets and the issues they face with post-traumatic stress disorder. For these vets the process of healing has started. As for Clare and Russ, the surprise at the end will having you eagerly awaiting number eight in the series.

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