Lily Connor, the Episcopal priest who has been assigned to be Interim Rector at Saint Mary of the Garden Episcopal Church, investigates the death of the long-time rector [not the result of natural causes, as original thought], the disappearance of the son of the Junior Warden, and the attempted murder of the sexton. In The Tentmaker [ISBN 0-425-17668-1] Lily Connors, an Episcopal Priest in Boston, has to take a leave of absence from her job at the women's center, and give up her beloved apartment, to be with her father during his final illness – Hodgkin's Disease. One week after her father's death, she receives a call from Bishop Spencer, asking her to accept the position as Interim Rector of a very conservative parish in the diocese - Saint Mary of the Garden Episcopal Church. Their beloved, long-time [ten year] rector, Frederick Barnes, has died unexpectedly. Although Lily is reluctant, Bishop Spencer is very persuasive, and Lily agrees, partly because the job will give her a place to live.
After Lily has been at Saint Mary's for a few weeks, she realizes that something is seriously wrong. The atmosphere is hostile and secretive. Vestry members will not cooperate with her on even the most trivial matters, e.g., planning special coffee hours. There are several oddities; for example, although Fr. Barnes's two desks, one in the rectory and one in the church office, have been emptied completely, all of his personal effects – clothes, toiletries, etc., - are just as he left them.
Her first ally turns out to be the housekeeper, Mrs. Hanlon, who cleans the church, the offices, and the rectory. Mrs. Hanlon is a long-time employee [10 years]; she was very close to Fr. Barnes so she knows all his habits – he was meticulous, with exquisite attention to detail.
Mrs. Hanlon is troubled because the manner of Fr. Barnes's death does not make sense to her. It is said that, being diabetic, Fr. Barnes took too much insulin, went into insulin shock, and had a seizure followed by a heart attack. However, Mrs. Barnes feels that he never would have been so careless as to take too much insulin. Moreover, the manner in which he was found [she found the body], made no sense. Although he claimed to be ill [possibly the flu], he was found on the floor of the kitchen, barefoot and in his pajamas. Mrs. Hanlon says that, even when Fr. Barnes was ill, he always wore his robe and slippers. Another inconsistency is that Mrs. Hanlon found one vial of insulin when she first looked, which was different from his normal prescription, but that, afterwards, that vial had been replaced by one that looked exactly like his normal prescription.
There are other problems:
Two resolutions are coming up before the diocesan convention – the ordination of women and the marriage of same-sex couples. The parish, including Fr. Barnes, had been opposed to both, but it is said that, more recently, Fr. Barnes was changing his mind. There is conflict among the parishioners as to what their vote should be.
Roy Talbot, the son of the junior warden and his wife, Sally [an abuser of drugs and alcohol], has disappeared. Lily thinks that she sees him lurking around the church, but his parents say he is out of town.
Finally, Lily finds the sexton, Roger Frye [a hot-tempered alcoholic in his 40's], unconscious at the bottom of the cellar steps; his breathing is raspy and he has vomited.
With the help of Mrs. Hanlon, Charlie Cooper [her best friend since seminary days who is now a brother in the Anglican Order of Saint Peter on Brattle Street], and Officer Casey [a former policeman, current police photographer, and soon-to-be Lily's love interest], Lily solves the murders.
Unbeknownst to most members of the parish, but known to Fr. Barnes, Dan Talbot has an obsession with under-age prostitutes; he spends lots of time and a considerable amount of money going out of town to meet many girls and one girl in particular. His personal life and his finances are in considerable disarray.
When Fr. Barnes tries to convince the vestry members to support the resolutions on female ordinations and same-sex marriage, most people, including Dan Talbot, refuse. Fr. Barnes tries to coerce Dan by implying he will expose Dan's obsession. Fr. Barnes must be eliminated.
Dan Talbot is a pharmacist; he owns his own pharmacy and, in addition, he owns a very large company of discount drug stores. Frequently, he fills prescriptions for Fr. Barnes and brings them to the rectory. To eliminate Fr. Barnes, Dan brings a new vial of insulin that is three times the strength Fr. Barnes normally takes. In addition, he brings Fr. Barnes Ceclor [an antibiotic] for his infection. However, he substitutes Xanax for the Ceclor. When Fr. Barnes takes the Xanax, he became disoriented, and does not realize that he is taking more insulin than he usually takes. Finally, after Fr. Barnes dies, Dan replaces the triple-strength insulin with a vial of the regular strength, and replaces the Ceclor bottle with a bottle of Xanax [so that people will think Fr. Barnes took the Xanax intentionally].
Roger Frye is attacked because he sees John Neville, the Senior Warden, coming out of the rectory after emptying Fr. Barnes's desk. Roger's allergy symptoms are worse when he drinks, and Dan has prescribed allergy pills. However, he has substituted Antabuse for the allergy medication in the capsules, so Roger becomes seriously ill. Luckily, Lily finds him in time, calls 911, and he receives treatment.
Roy Talbot shocks his parents, Dan and Sally Talbot, when he tells them that he is gay. Dan threatens Roy, who runs away. Again, Lily and her friends find Roy and get him the help he needs.
When Lily, Charlie, and the one-eyed mutt, Syro, return to the rectory after relaxing at the beach, there is a small gray sedan at the curb.
Lily and Officer Casey are an item.
Best part of story, including ending:
I liked the book because the plot and character development were very clear, and some of the people [e.g., Mrs. Hanlon] were very believable. I disliked the fact that there was lots of extraneous detail that got in the way of the story development [e.g., extended comments about the weather and Lily's dreams], and that, repeatedly, in the dialog, some of the characters [especially Lily] started sentences but did not finish them, and interrupted each other, making following the conversation very tedious. Finally, although, such issues as female ordination might have been controversial and significant when the book was first published, they are a little outdated and quaint these days, when there is a female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Best scene in story:
In my favorite scene, after the mysteries are solved, Lily and Charlie spend a day on the outer Cape where they have a picnic lunch and prevent Syro, the one-eyed mutt, from eating a skate.
Opinion about the main character:
I liked Lilly because she was conscientious, compassionate, and an independent thinker, however, I felt that she was a little too self-absorbed.