A butchered and bagged body shatters a spiritual community’s peace in California.
In Cyrus’ debut novel, sandals-wearing Father Ambrose didn’t expect to assist in a murder investigation. But as the abbot of the New Life Ecumenical Retreat, he also didn’t imagine a young woman’s dismembered body would find its way onto the community’s property. New Life boasts 25 nuns and 20 monks living on about 250 acres. In addition to meditating, the group grows, harvests, and sells wholesale and online fruit and other crops produced on its land. Because the deceased had tats, black fingernail polish, and spiky hair, it seems unlikely she was associated with a New Life resident. But Sheriff Charlie Cormley takes nothing for granted as New Life has a lot of people “who’ll cover for each other. And a lot of property to hide stuff on.” But it’s Father Ambrose who discovers that the dead woman knew one of the group’s monks. He might even have gotten her pregnant, with her condition confirmed by the medical examiner, who grins as she suggests whoever opened the bag of body parts must have had the smell “hit ’em right between the eyes.” It seems odd that any sorrowful feelings Father Ambrose, a spiritual man known for having visions, may have toward the victim appear superseded by his regret that the murder will alter the tranquility of his community, especially during harvest season. Fear of bad press also concerns him. Although the book is labeled The First Father Ambrose Mystery, Cormley holds center stage with the abbot. Characterization of both men is strong, as is that of the sheriff’s wife, Ruth, who refuses to turn on the insect zapper on buggy nights if Father Ambrose is visiting because he cringes “every time one of those little guys goes up in flames.” The interactions between characters are skillfully rendered, as is the dialogue. A third of the way through the tale comes the news that New Life is not a Roman Catholic monastery, but rather a community formed by former Catholics who believe strongly in meditation. Although it begins with the yikes factor of a body in a bag, the mystery becomes watered down by repetition of New Life’s dogma and the concerns of those who live outside the mainstream.
A well-written story that would benefit from a little less talk and a lot more action.