Cover image for The tentmaker
The tentmaker
Blake, Michelle.
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Publication Information:
New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, [1999]

Physical Description:
273 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
"A Lily Connor mystery"--Jacket.
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Lily Connor has spent the past six months in her native Texas at her father's bedside watching him die. When her close friend Bishop Lamont Spencer calls to ask if she wants to take a job in Boston as the interim priest--or tentmaker--for a wealthy parish that has just lost its priest, she leaps at the opportunity. The beloved rector had died suddenly of a heart attack, brought on by insulin shock; the parishioners require a compassionate, experienced priest to guide them through this time of change.Soon after Lily takes over the job, however, she begins to suspect both the official version of the priest's death and those who insist on its truth. As she is drawn ever deeper into the parish and the deadly secrets hidden within, Lily discovers that she may pay for her role of tentmaker with her own life.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In this debut novel, Lily Connor is a 36-year-old Episcopalian priest serving as a "tentmaker," or interim rector in a parish seeking a full-time priest. Unfortunately for Lily, her temporary parish, St. Mary of the Garden in Boston, is in deep trouble, and its members are unlikely to turn to her for comfort. To make matters worse, questions soon arise about the character of St. Mary's former priest, Father Barnes, and his death (supposedly from insulin shock). Could Father Barnes have had an illicit relationship with the teenage son of a parishioner? Were any parishioners angry enough over Barnes' support of homosexual priests to have killed him? Lily must dig for answers among a decidedly unfriendly flock, while seeking comfort from Charlie, her best friend from seminary school, and Bishop Lamont Spencer, her mentor. This well-put-together if rather slow moving mystery offers an in-depth look at the Episcopalian world and is sure to appeal to crime-fiction fans with an interest in religion. --Jenny McLarin

Publisher's Weekly Review

Another clerical snoop takes to amateur sleuthing in this stylish debut from a poet and graduate of Harvard Divinity School who once considered becoming an Episcopal priest. Blake's heroine, Lily Connor, is a "tentmaker"Äan ordained priest who works outside the church. Lily is a spiritual nomad who, as the novel begins, has been assigned to serve as interim priest at Boston's St. Mary of the Garden Episcopal Church after the sudden death of the church's long-time spiritual head, Father Fred Barnes. Lily's faith and authority are challenged immediately: the parishioners seem disinterested in her attempts to help them adjust to Barnes's death; the vestry members are downright hostile to her. When the sexton almost dies in a suspicious fall, Lily begins to suspect Barnes was murdered and assembles an odd trio of investigators: her best friend, Charlie Cooper, a Brother in the Anglican Order of St. Peter; Mrs. Hanlon, the loyal rectory cleaning woman who revered Father Barnes; and cop Tom Casey, whose mother is a friend of Mrs. Hanlon. After discovering that Barnes had damaging information about a parishioner and hoped to use it as a lever for change within the church, Lily's attention is drawn to wealthy Dan Talbot, the vestry's conservative leader, whose 16-year-old son has disappeared. Although the novel frequently sags under the weight of its intricate plot, Blake's writing is graceful, often elegiac, and her characters hum with humanity. In addition, her examination of the divisive issues facing an influential religious organization in a fast-changing society gives a rich background to an entertaining mystery. (Sept.) FYI: Blake is married to novelist Dennis McFarland. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Lily Connor is the interim priest-in-charge at a conservative Episcopal church in Boston whose last priest died suddenly and suspiciously. As Lily slowly breeches the personal barriers erected against her, other strange occurrences come to light: the dead priest's recent turnaround regarding controversial doctrinal issues, a teenaged church member estranged from his family, and the supposed alcohol-induced injury of the church sexton. With help from her friend Charlie, an Anglican brother, Lily determines to find the motive behind it all. Deftly written and firmly anchored in both subject and surroundings, this debut mystery is strongly recommended. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One LILY LEANED BACK in the old-fashioned desk chair, closed her eyes, and prayed. She prayed for compassion, she prayed for insight, and she prayed, if it was anywhere in the scope of God's will, for release from this job, which was driving her crazy. She had worked as an interim priest several times before, taking over while a parish searched for a new rector, but this time it was different. For reasons she hadn't yet discovered, the people at St. Mary of the Garden seemed determined to keep her out of their lives and out of the life of the parish. Over the past two weeks she had felt like a ghost in the church building--invisible, pointless--while the parishioners posted their notices, collected their messages, and conducted their Bible study without her help.     So now, the sudden loud creaking of the door from the chancel not only startled her but also gave her a shot of hope. Maybe somebody was paying a visit. Maybe somebody here needed her.     The woman who appeared in the office doorway did not look like a person in need. She was round and solid, in a lightweight cloth coat, and clearly unbothered by the cold. Her short, gray hair seemed to have been recently permed; her shoes were sturdy, lace-up oxfords. She stood for a moment, studying Lily, then spoke in a businesslike voice with a hint of her Irish Boston ancestry.     "I suppose you're the replacement," she said.     "I'm the interim priest-in-charge, Lily Connor."     "And what do they call you?" asked the woman.     "Who?" replied Lily.     "Your parishioners. They can't call you `Father.'"     "No, we don't call our priests `Father' in the Episcopal Church--not anymore, at least. I mean, I don't," said Lily. She had just realized that this woman must have a key to the street door of the church, since she hadn't entered through the garden. Very few people had that key. Who was she?     "Is that so?" the woman asked. "I called him Father Barnes until the day he died, and he never objected."     Lily stood and walked toward the woman to shake hands. "Are you a parishioner? I'm afraid we haven't met."     The stranger stepped back, away from Lily, and folded her arms across her chest. "I am not," she said. "I'm a member of St. Luke's Roman Catholic Church."     Lily awkwardly withdrew her hand and leaned against the desk, mostly for support.    "I took some time off after I--after he died," continued the woman. "You won't owe me for that. I looked for you the past couple of weeks, but you're not in the office much, and I didn't like to intrude over at the rectory." She inclined her head in the direction of the two-story shingled house across the courtyard. "I'll finish up here today, but I can't come back." She paused, then added, "It wouldn't be right."     "I'm afraid I'm confused," said Lily. "Do you mean it wouldn't be right because--well, what do you mean?"     "I've cleaned the church and the rectory for Father Barnes all these years because of the kind of man he was and the kind of church this is. Honest, safe, respectable. But I can't go on doing it now. I've talked it over with my priest, and he feels the same. You need to get someone else."     After a moment, Lily felt indignation replace confusion. Apparently, this woman believed it besmirched her good name to clean a church in which a woman served as priest.     "Of course that's up to you, said Lily. "But I'll have to ask you for more notice, since I've just started and don't really know the procedure for finding someone new. Could you stay on for at least two more weeks?"     "I can," she answered. "Will you be wanting me to clean the rectory as well?"     The question caught Lily off guard; she had not expected such quick compliance. "Sure," she said. "Yes, that would be fine."     "I'll just get started here," said the woman, turning from the door, clearly softened by the encounter.     It's probably how she's used to being treated by church superiors, thought Lily. I've given her orders and made her feel right at home. And those two thoughts made Lily herself feel worse than she had all morning. She followed her visitor out into the hallway.     "I'm afraid I didn't get your name," said Lily.     "I'm Mrs. Hanlon," she said over her shoulder as she headed for the stairs to the church hall in the basement. Then she turned and added, "I'm sorry for being rude. I've never had to talk to a woman in a collar before--not a priest's collar." With that she turned again and disappeared down the stairs. BACK IN HER OFFICE, Lily sat once more and stared through the leaded windows into the church courtyard. Though green lingered on the clipped lawn and among the hedges, the color had been absorbed by a gray October sky. Water dripped from the dark overhang of the building where mist condensed and pooled in the clogged gutters. She watched a car roll past on Lee Street, splashing through a shallow puddle near the corner.     After a moment she swiveled the chair to her right, toward one of the walls of books that lined the small office--theology, philosophy, church history, all predictable and all alphabetically arranged. So far, she had not found one out of place: Abelard, Anselm, Aquinas, Athanasius, Augustine, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Buber, Bultmann and the rest, many of whom Lily had read in seminary, few of whom she still read. She had formed an opinion of her predecessor, the late Reverend Mr. Barnes, as a straight-backed, tight-lipped conservative--that is, as the enemy. His obsessively alphabetized library only confirmed her suspicions.     As did his perfectly empty desk, she thought, though that was irrational, since Barnes couldn't have cleaned it out after he died. But someone had. When she'd first opened the drawers, not a dry pen or a loose tack rattled anywhere. The files were full of the regular mailing lists, minutes from vestry meetings, parish correspondence. But there were no personal papers, not a sign of the aging priest who had used this room for more than ten years.     Lily turned to the desk and glanced down at the list of messages she had collected that morning. Bishop Spencer had called, but, since he was the person responsible for her being at St. Mary's to begin with, she didn't feel like talking with him anytime soon. He was a longtime friend and ally in the church, but right now she could have killed him. Besides, he had waited two weeks to call and check in with her; he could wait a few more days.     John Neville, senior warden of the vestry, had left a message (desultory, unenthusiastic) agreeing to have a special coffee hour--some sort of informal discussion group in which she could get to know parishioners, and vice versa--but he wouldn't have time to do anything about announcements. Could Lily get something typed up and talk to another vestry member, maybe Cynthia Babcock or Stanley Leonard? Stanley Leonard hadn't returned Lily's call, but Cynthia had called to say she was awfully sorry they had been so lax. Could she ever forgive them? Unfortunately, she wouldn't be around this week, maybe Lily could call Stanley's wife, Jo ...?     More of the shell game she'd been getting from the start. At that moment, Lily couldn't come up with a decent explanation for the behavior. This dogged avoidance had begun to appear purposeful, even secretive. Chapter Two THE SECOND IN LINE for blame regarding her current employment was Charlie Cooper, her best friend since their seminary years together in Cambridge; he, too, had urged her to take this job. Charlie was now a brother in the Anglican order of St. Peter on Brattle Street, just two blocks from the seminary where they had studied years ago. Lily had agreed to meet him for an early dinner in Harvard Square, but she regretted it. After a day of hunting elusive vestry members, Lily was in no mood to navigate the rush-hour crush on the Red Line train to Cambridge.     On the elevated platform at the Charles Street station she watched a group of teenagers, a matched set of girls and boys in fatigue pants, army boots, and black watch caps, shoving one another dangerously near the edge. For at least five minutes she stared disapprovingly but stayed silent. Then, when two boys took hold of a girl--slender, pale, with dark circles under her eyes--and pulled her toward the track, Lily stepped forward.     "Don't fool around like that--if you slip, you could kill someone," she said, keeping her voice level.     The boys stopped for an instant, their grimacing smiles still intact, then the one closest to her turned and said, "Fuck you," loud and clear on the crowded platform.     The couple to Lily's right backed up two steps.     "Be that as it may," said Lily. "Let go of her."     At that moment, the train pulled into sight so she was spared the follow-up requisite defiance. The girl, who seemed to be partly in charge now, said something with the word "bitch" in it, then led the way to a car farther up the track. But Lily had attracted the attention of everyone around.     By the time she had boarded the packed train and found a handle on the overhead right-hand railing, halfway down the car, she felt as if the entire crowd were staring in her direction. As uncomfortable as it made her, she drew on a longtime history of ignoring curious glances. In the most peaceful of settings, she still gave off an incongruous set of messages in her jeans, hand-tooled cowboy boots, army surplus slicker, and clerical collar. She wore her thick, dark hair pulled back in a braid, but in wet weather she could not control the strands that curled around her forehead and the nape of her neck.     In high school she had been the skinny, overgrown geek, the outcast, the reader of poems and nineteenth-century novels. She still pictured herself that way. During one of their chronic conversations about the lack of romance in her life, Lily had told Charlie, "You're not on the dating circuit, but I've got news for you--people don't date geeks."     Charlie had let out a surprised laugh. "I've got news for you ," he had said. "You're not a geek--a difficult person, maybe, but a good-looking difficult person. You're tall and skinny, the cultural icon. Don't you know that?"     Lily had left it there. But in truth, even at age thirty-six, she still thought of herself as a geek. She had even come to suspect it was what she preferred. She refused to take her looks or her clothes seriously, though she indulged a weakness for expensive shirts.     And there was the added problem of the clerical collar. After ordination she had come to mistrust people's responses to her when she was "frocked," as she called it. But the bishop had suggested she take to wearing it again, temporarily, for her work at St. Mary's. So she had. She was conscious of it at that moment as a mild abrasion on her neck.     She was also conscious of the way the tall, older man beside her leaned crazily away, as if scared of brushing her arm. He's afraid I'm going after him next, she thought. At Kendall Square he got off, and the small cleared area around her closed up with unsuspecting newcomers.     The sense of being universally shunned made her think of Mrs. Hanlon. Could the woman really be afraid of a female priest? Had that been Mrs. Hanlon's problem? If so, what did "honest" mean? And hadn't she also said "safe"?     Lily stared at the dark window across from her, at the image of her pale face, her large eyes. When the inbound train hurtled past, she startled. For the next few minutes, she tried to reason away the growing certainty that something was wrong at the heart of St. Mary of the Garden. But she couldn't entirely. By the time she reached the top of the escalator in Harvard Square and felt the cool evening air on her face, she had quit trying. AT A CROWDED INDIAN RESTAURANT overlooking JFK Street, Lily reported her encounter with Mrs. Hanlon to Charlie, word for word.     Charlie's response was predictably fair-minded, compassionate, and irritating. "Poor thing," he said.     Lily studied him for a moment. "I hope you mean me."     "I don't," he replied with a half-smile, "I mean poor Mrs. Hanlon. Think what a shock you must be to her system."     Lily finished chewing. Then she said, "I think you miss the point."     "Yeah?" he asked quizzically. "So, what's the point?"     "Gee, I don't know, Charlie," she said, in mock bafflement. "Maybe the point is that I find myself in this throwback, country-club parish with its own cleaning lady, and at a very, very hard time for me. I've just spent six months in Texas doing--you know what I was doing. I get dragged back to Boston by you and Spencer to baby-sit rich people, I've got no place of my own to live, and I can't figure out what the hell is going on over there."     Lily's voice had gotten loud on the last few lines and carried out into the high-ceilinged room. The couple at the next table quickly averted their eyes from the two clerics when Charlie glanced at them.     "Thanks," he said. "This is terrific PR. I think I'll leave my collar at home the next time we go out."     Lily stared through the window at the sidewalk population of the Square on a drizzly evening. Even in dripping parkas, the students looked, to her at least, smug and self-satisfied. On the corner, a skinny, young Latino man in an oversized raincoat was selling copies of Spare Change , an advocacy newspaper for the homeless. No one was buying. She could think of nothing to say to make either Charlie or herself feel better, so she kept quiet.     They had been friends since their first-year New Testament seminar, bound by temperament, theology, and the odd coincidence of conversion: they had both been raised Catholic and had not been confirmed in the Episcopal Church until they were in college. And when Lily had decided to stay on in Boston after seminary, they were both ordained in the Diocese of Eastern Massachusetts, in the same ceremony at the Cathedral of St. Michael and All Angels.     Charlie now lived in the Cambridge monastery of the Society of Saint Peter, an Anglican order he had entered just after graduation. He had changed very little over the years: his dark hair was cut short, his body was still lanky, his face narrow and aquiline. In general, he had developed that ageless quality Lily noticed in monastics, as if the reward for abstinence were a better complexion.     "I take it this is my fault," said Charlie.     "That's ridiculous," said Lily, bristling at being found out. "It was time for me to come back here, back to my life. It's just ..."     "What?" asked Charlie.     "I don't know. I just wish I'd thought more clearly about taking this interim thing. Maybe I grabbed it because it solved my housing problem."     "People have done much worse in Boston to solve their housing problems, believe me," said Charlie. "But I don't think you're giving yourself enough credit. I seem to remember your spending a lot of time and prayer on this one."     "I did," said Lily. "But lately I can't tell if it's God answering me or just my ego speaking in a deep voice."     Charlie laughed. Then he asked, "Why did Mrs. Hanlon say `safe,' do you think-about the parish?"     "I don't know," said Lily. "I wondered about that myself. What do you think?"     "I haven't the slightest idea. Does St. Mary's strike you as unsafe?"     Lily glanced across the large, bright room at an older man with his college-age daughter. The two were looking out the window at the roofs of Harvard buildings, just visible in the evening light. Finally, Lily turned back to Charlie and said, "Yes, it does. But I couldn't tell you why."     "Maybe that's why you're there, then," said Charlie. "To sort it out for them."     "You see this as part of the larger plan, do you?" she asked, smiling tolerantly. "You think there's some reason for all this to be happening now?"     But Charlie didn't smile back. "What did God say to Job?"     "Yeah, yeah, I know. `Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?' I get it. I get what it's supposed to mean, but I don't always like it."     "Nobody likes it," he said. "Who do you know who likes God?"     When she didn't respond, Charlie said, "You're there for a reason, Lily. It's not clear to you yet what it is, and it may not be clear for a long time, maybe not until way after you leave, but eventually you'll see it. There is an order at work here. Trust me."     "You, I trust," said Lily. "But that's about all." Copyright © 1999 Michelle Blake. All rights reserved.