An odd story involving little detection but many studies of the lives and deaths--especially the deaths--of the parishoners of Old West Church in Nashoba, Mass. Victim of the lengthiest terminal illness among them is Claire, the wife of newly appointed minister Joseph Bold and now in the last stages of cancer. Meanwhile, Joan Sawyer's husband Howard is slowly, then not so slowly, losing his sanity; fat Carl Bucky is being killed by his scrawny wife's cream pies and sausage fritters; and Rosemary Hill is spending her last months attic cleaning and window polishing. There are others. Watching over them all is town saint Ed Bell, ever cheerful, ever dependable, ever caring, who heads up an unadvertised weekly meeting to strengthen the unfortunates and who eventually helps some of them to a dignified demise. Retired detective Homer Kelly (Natural Enemy, 1982) puzzles over the spate of deaths, as does policeman's wife Flo Terry. But the way things turn out, Ed will have to get his reward in heaven--he certainly doesn't get it on earth. The gloomy doings are somewhat lightened by the author's fine-tuned perceptions, graceful prose and, at the end, a faint harbinger of better things to come. Cheerless but mildly compelling.