Secrets abound in the postWW II, conventional-seeming lives of the residents of Lydmouth, an English town much centered on its church—St. John's—where the gentle new vicar, Alec Sutton, is at odds with some of his parishioners. The congregation wants the church's 13th-century Lydmouth Chalice, kept locked in the vestry, to be sold for much needed repairs. Sutton has refused to go along, but the question becomes academic when the Chalice is stolen, the thief leaving behind the body of a regular churchgoer, Catherine Kymin, killed by a blow to the head. Jill Francis (An Air That Kills, 1995, not reviewed), a writer for the town's Gazette, is the forerunner of a dozen reporters who arrive to do a piece on the Chalice almost as the body is discovered. Meanwhile, a series of anonymous letters to town and church bigwigs muddies the waters for Inspector Thornhill and Sergeant Brian Kirby. Kirby is already unsettled by his secret affair with Jemima Orepool, the wanton, orphaned niece of church patron Sir Anthony Ruispidge, who's keeping her on a short leash, away from London's fleshpots. Kirby is not her only conquest, as becomes apparent after Jill gets bonked on the head in the barn of the Bull Hotel, and after yet another murder victim is discovered. The author rambles leisurely from one (mostly dysfunctional) relationship to another, dwelling at length on looks, sighs, and touches—revealing the killer early on in a story more given to fine-tuned domestic drama than to suspense. Still, intriguing enough to hold most readers to the finish.
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