Haddam moves deep into Greeley territory in this sprawling study of religious morals, foibles, even canticles. On one of Philadelphia’s loveliest streets, St. Anselm’s church, ministered to by starchy Father Robert Healy, faces St. Stephen’s, where Pastor Dan Burdock oversees a mostly gay Episcopal congregation. A few doors down, within megaphone-harassing distance, is the headquarters of self-appointed fundamentalist preacher Roy Phipps, and just past his office is the home of professional atheist Edith Lawton, who alternates passing out abysmally written antireligious tracts with trysts with the lawyer responsible for making restitution to the 62 (or is it 71?) men abused by pedophilic priests ten years ago. Outside, the street is alive with drag queens, teaching sisters, picketers, pamphlet-waving disciples trashing each other’s views, and one very opinionated feminist nun. There are also several dead bodies cluttering up the church aisles, including a husband and wife, a gay man, and all too soon, Father Healy and that pesky, no-longer-vocal, nun. Gregor Demarkian, the Armenian-American Poirot, is called in by the Cardinal Archbishop and the cops to sort matters through in between consultations with his friend Father Tibor Kasparian. In addition to arsenic poisoning, a publicly staged exorcism, religious and antireligious diatribes, and clues clever enough to make Agatha Christie envious, he must deal with the imminent, state-mandated execution of his lover’s sister, a murderess who has lost a final appeal.
Haddam, who is second only to King James in biblical scholarship, has abundant storytelling skills (Skeleton Key, 2000, etc.). One hopes that someday soon she turns them loose on Tibor and lets him control a whole book.