Early one morning at St. Anselm's church in Philadelphia, a parishioner sneaks the body of his dead wife into the sacristy and commits suicide. His wife, a severe diabetic, is assumed to have died of natural causes - until the coroner discovers arsenic poisoning. The police are sure her husband was responsible, but one of the nuns at St. Anselm's doesn't and asks Gregor Demarkian, retired head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, to investigate. With tensions mounting among the city's religious groups, Demarkian's lover Bennis undergoing a crisis of her own, and the denizens of Demarkian's Armenian-American neighborhood - Cavanaugh Street - involved in various uproars of their own, Demarkian is facing the most difficult case of his career.
A small Philadelphia neighborhood, a melting pot of fervent religious beliefs, erupts in violence that calls for all the skills of Gregor Demarkian, the formidable retired head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, as he tackles his 16th case following last year's Skeleton Key. A Roman Catholic parish still suffering from the aftereffects of a pedophilia scandal that rocked the archdiocese; an Episcopalian church with a mostly gay male congregation; an independent, fundamentalist Baptist church; and atheist Edith Lawton all occupy the same block. Only Haddam's superb plotting and characterizations allow this microcosmic creation to achieve credibility. The new Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia first consults Demarkian when a suicide inside St. Anselm's proves more complicated than first believed and threatens to become a new scandal for the beleaguered Catholic church. Then Demarkian is coopted by the police when another death, thought to have been natural, proves to have been murder. As tensions escalate, Demarkian must unravel the motives behind killings that threaten to tear apart the delicate balance. To make things even more difficult, Demarkian's lover, Bennis Hannaford, is facing a personal crisis. Her sister's execution date is approaching and this time there appears no hope of stopping it. Haddam's large cast pulses with petty jealousies, vanities and fears as they confront the mysteries of life and religion. This is an engrossingly complex mystery that should win further acclaim for its prolific and talented author.