There are books I hoard until I know another one is imminent. But the wait for another Russ Van Alstyne/Clare Fergusson mystery was seven years in the offing. I kept One Was A Soldier and Through the Evil Days piled on the night-table, winking and beckoning and giving me the come-hither-reader. But I resisted. Now, with, finally, after a seven-year wait, a new Russ/Clare novel, Hid From Our Eyes, I decided to go whole hog and catch up on all of them. With covid-work and sundry tasks, reading-time has been at a premium, usually consisting of three sleepy-eyed pages and then oblivion until the alarm chirps. Nevertheless, I was glad, even piecemeal, to sink into One Was A Soldier, though it was as unlike the previous books in the series as I’d ever expected. Oh, I liked it, loved it for Russ and Clare, but it did come as a surprise. For one thing, Spencer-Fleming played with her narrative timeline and frankly, for another thing, I barely recognized Clare and Russ, their personalities usually running along the lines of serene wisdom to street-smart a-whole-lot-o’-mess respectively, suddenly turned on their head. Reverend Clare was a hot mess and Russ, an island of calm and reasonableness … until I started reading Through the Evil Days, but that’s for another post. (Be warned, what follows contains spoilers, so continue if you’re already a series fan and have read up to the present volume.)
One Was A Soldier picks up from where I Shall Not Want left off (Russ and Clare finally together, only to throw a great big reader-NOPE into Clare’s call-up to go to Iraq as a Black Hawk pilot). But Spencer-Fleming saves the much-awaited Russ-Clare reunion scene to follow much later from Once Was A Soldier‘s opening. Instead, One Was A Soldier opens with Clare and four other Iraq veterans, attending a therapy session. Clare is subdued, thin, and suffering from what a reader would say is PTSD. She has a worrisome dependence on pills and alcohol. If you’re looking for the wise, dedicated, serene Clare of the previous books, you’re not going to find her here. Clare is broken and erratic, though still sympathetic, still likeable. The narrative then moves back to Clare’s return from Iraq, reunion with Russ, and their engagement. While criminal shenanigans are investigated and mysterious deaths are parsed for motive and perpetrator, Clare and Russ plan their wedding, well Clare’s mother plans the wedding, which grows ever more elaborate (and constitutes the sole humour in what is a most sombre book, in a sombre series to begin with). Plot-wise, one of these five veterans, not Clare obviously because then the series would REALLY have taken a turn for the I-don’t-know-what, dies in an apparent suicide. Clare’s emotional frailty disagrees with Russ’s suicide conclusion about her fellow vet and she sets out to prove him wrong. Whether Russ is right, or Clare is, fades to the background when the vet’s suicide becomes embroiled in an investigation into financial fraud involving military members. The narrative moves forward from that initial group therapy session to the occasional flashback to Clare’s return and her struggles to reintegrate into her calling, relationships, and the life of the community until it settles, in the last quarter, to a straight, that is, chronologically sequenced, mystery-solution narrative.
The plot’s fulcrum, the vet’s death-suicide, only comes in the novel’s middle. In truth, as I read along, I thought this wasn’t much of a mystery, at least not until the last quarter. Did it matter when I was with Russ and Clare and the familiar world and characters of Spencer-Fleming’s fictional small-town, Millers Kill, NY? Not really. What Spencer-Fleming set out to do, within her series’ parametres, is tell the story of how vets struggle when they return home. Clare’s war trauma rings true, painful, and renders her in a broken, sympathetic light. I liked this out-of-control Clare, but I didn’t recognize her. Ditto for Russ. I liked this calm, thoughtful, loving man, no longer tormented about his love for his wife and his love for the reverend. Together, they were hot, passionate, often at loggerheads, but still believable as a couple who love each other deeply, eternally, and with great physical desire. I think the Clare and Russ of the previous books became mouthpieces for the story Spencer-Fleming wanted to tell, maybe needed to tell. In doing so, what Spencer-Fleming sacrificed is Clare and Russ’s intelligence. Maybe more Russ’s than Clare’s. After all, Clare is traumatized (as are the other vets and one of the novel’s successes is in telling the story of their diverse traumas) and addicted and her irrational, erratic, and temperamental behaviours may rightly be justified. Russ, on the other hand, a supremely astute character, a war veteran himself, fails to discern Clare’s struggles. On the other hand, he does sense something is wrong and his response to Clare, his understanding, loving patience, results in one of the tenderest of scenes. I also loved Spencer-Fleming’s inclusion of Russ and Clare’s wedding: the opportunity to witness their happiness, even amidst all these troubles, was deeply satisfying. In sum, no matter Spencer-Fleming’s narrative deviations, it’s a series I loved, love, and will continue to read.