"Sometimes people like you -- people with a lust for the absolute truth -- are a pain in the neck." Meet Lily Connor, a new, one-of-a-kind ecclesiastical snoop, in a captivating debut that is as smart and savvy as it is satisfying. Lily is a "Tentmaker": a progressive Episcopal priest clad in cowboy boots and jeans, who makes her living outside of the church. But when she pitches her tent as the interim pastor in the wealthy and conservative Boston parish of St. Mary of the Garden, Lily soon realizes that there is much the parish would like to keep under cover -- and even more at stake.
When St. Mary's beloved rector, Father Fred Barnes, dies suddenly of a heart attack brought on by insulin shock, Lily's close friend Bishop Lamont Spencer asks that she go there to guide them through the difficult transition. Although an experienced priest and compassionate hand in times of crisis, Lily herself is in the midst of her own dark time of change, having just returned from Texas where she has spent the past six months nursing her dying father. When the parish gives her the cold shoulder, she feels lonelier than ever, and begins to suspect there might have been trouble between the congregation and Barnes before he died. She senses there is some dark history lurking beneath the surface of their strange, secretive behavior, and is determined to get to the heart of the problem.
She begins with the elusive vestry, a tight-knit and clandestine group led by senior warden John Neville, who it is rumored had sought to get rid of Father Barnes, and already is rushing to find a replacement for Lily. No less suspicious is Junior Warden Dan Talbot, a successful businessman who never seems to be where he claims he is, and whose troubled son, Roy, has disappeared. Peace is kept in the parish only by the efforts of organist and choir director, Stanley Leonard, whose looks unsettlingly remind Lily of Dracula.
While the vestry seems intent on privacy and formality, she takes matters into her own hands. In looking through Barnes's papers, she discovers that he, for years a conservative leader of his parish, had undergone a profound change of heart just as the diocese was about to vote on the question of ordaining homosexual priests. He also appeared to be suffering intense guilt from what he believed were past wrongs, and was in need of forgiveness.
As the details surrounding the priest's death grow increasingly suspicious, the sexton, Roger Frye, almost dies in a suspicious fall, and Lily knows there is a dark secret she's determined to uncover. With the help of an unlikely investigative team -- Mrs. Hanlon (the Catholic housekeeper who knows something is suspicious about Fred Barnes's death), Charlie Cooper (her best friend and a brother in the Anglican Order of St. Peter), and Tom Casey (a former cop) -- Lily sets out to uncover the dark truths that lie within the mysterious inner sanctum of St. Mary's, at any risk.
While this remarkable debut is a top-notch mystery with first-rate writing, what make The Tentmaker even more compelling are the underlying struggles of its characters, all of whom are very human. Michelle Blake, a published poet who graduated from Harvard Divinity School and at one time seriously considered becoming an Episcopal priest, has not only created a mystery you won't be able to put down, but she has also woven a tale about faith and hope, human failing, and ultimately, forgiveness. Not to mention an unforgettably original sleuth we hope to see again soon.
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August 1999 : USA Hardback
September 2000 : USA Mass Market Paperback