Eidson's hard-boiled nun is on it

Special to The Times

To the list of clerical detectives in the mystery genre, ranging from Father Brown to the rabbi who slept late on Friday, we must now add the wimpled and robed figure of Sister Ria, the intrepid Benedictine nun who serves as the heroine of "Souls of Angels" by Thomas Eidson. Along with her spiritual discipline and her investigational skills, she is also quite capable of taking down a villain mano a mano if the circumstances require.

Eidson is the author of four previous novels, the most familiar of which is "The Missing," thanks to the 2003 movie version directed by Ron Howard. The author is adept at putting his characters through their paces in rich and colorful historical settings, and this time he has chosen the pueblo of Los Angeles in the late 19th century as the tableau against which the mystery unfolds. The place described in "Souls of Angels" will be only faintly familiar to local readers, and it would take a trip to Olvera Street to lay eyes on anything remotely resembling the scenes that Eidson conjures up.

The story begins with the slaying of a young prostitute named Dorothy Regal, and the evil-doing accumulates page by page as Sister Ria comes to fear that her father is a serial killer responsible for several suspicious deaths -- including the apparent suicide of one of her sisters and the accident that took the life of her one and only suitor -- in addition to the prostitute for whose murder he has been sentenced to die. Given the ever-multiplying number of suspects in Dorothy's death, however, "Souls of Angels" soon resembles a game of Clue.

The Massachusetts-based author takes a certain risk in imagining what Los Angeles must have been like in olden days. He suggests, for example, that it is typical for a rainstorm to reach Los Angeles from the Tehachapi Mountains, "driving the smell of deserts ahead of it." Sister Ria drives herself from her father's hacienda near the La Brea tar pits to a restaurant on Olive Street for a dinner engagement, but even without the gridlock traffic of modern L.A., that's one long carriage ride.

But these are quibbles. The pueblo that serves as a painted backdrop for "Souls of Angels" is a romantic and exotic place, and Eidson uses the history of Los Angeles to make the point that it was a place of cultural change and conflict. "Knowing that the Americans ran the liquor and gambling, the Mexicans the bordellos, and the Orientals the opium," muses the doomed harlot of a dirt road, "she wondered how the place ever came to be called La Calle del Negro."

Confronting the various malefactors in the name of truth and righteousness is Sister Ria, who has been granted leave from the convent in India where she tends to dying lepers to come to the rescue of her father, who has been convicted of the murder on circumstantial evidence and is counting down the days until he faces the noose. Owing to her own bitterness toward her father, however, she seems more interested in bringing him to confession than in helping him avoid the gallows.

Thanks to a series of highly cinematic flashbacks, we know that Sister Ria found God at the age of 13 on the beach at Malibu and contrived to run away from her father, a domineering crackpot with weaknesses for the company of women, the pleasures of an opium pipe and for dressing up in the garb of a samurai, a cavalry officer, a gaucho or a priest. Early on, we are allowed to understand that Don Maximiato Lugo has committed a moral outrage against young Ria -- "I loved you," she complains, "and you sliced my heart out" -- but it's revealed it is not the kind of outrage that we might imagine.

After the death of his wife and only son from smallpox, the dotty old don recruited the adolescent Ria to fill the role of patroncito in place of his male heir. At the time he forced her to wear men's clothing, give up her beloved pony in favor of a workhorse and spend her days with the herds and field hands while her only surviving sister, Milagros, flounced around town like a proper lady in search of a proper husband. His greatest offense, it seems, was to dress like a woman and show up at a birthday party that Ria was attending in order to ruin his daughter's social life and thus keep her down on the ranch. "Do you like my outfit?" Don Maximiato asks his humiliated daughter. Eidson, in fact, stacks the deck in favor of the quixotic Don Maximiato, who appears to be a lovable lunatic with an open mind and a heart of gold rather than a homicidal maniac. He decorates the hacienda with multicultural artifacts: "a crucified Christ, a sixteenth-century portrait of Buddha, a framed verse from the Koran." While the old man displays an alarming obsession with costumery and cross-dressing, the crippled and homeless children whom he shelters on the hacienda regard him as a saint.

When she is not looking for clues and suspects, Sister Ria struggles to sort out the contradictions in her cracked family history. Much time and attention is invested in the psychological twists and turns of her troubled adolescence, and Sister Ria wants badly for her father to honor the fact that she has, in fact, become a woman. Now and then, the two of them openly confront each other, but their respective obsessions do not make for meaningful conversation: "Why does the Almighty hide?" he asks. "Is He ashamed of His creation?" To which Sister Ria answers: "Please just answer me. Did you kill Dorothy Regal?"

At the same time, however, the author tricks up a series of harum-scarum plot devices that are meant to scare off Sister Ria and raise a few goose bumps on the reader too. She comes across a dead fetus, a slaughtered rooster, a cross painted in blood on her bedroom wall and a black moth that refuses to die. She is stalked by a threatening figure in a brown suit, she hears disembodied voices in the night, and she detects suspicious movements behind adobe walls. Indeed, the old hacienda is a veritable haunted house, equipped with secret chambers and locked doors.

Virtually everyone Sister Ria encounters along the way -- a devoted household servant, a charming young newspaper editor, a titled family counselor, a pair of scheming Yankee entrepreneurs, and so on -- could be the culprit in Dorothy's murder. But the author plays according to the well-settled rules of the game, and so we are supposed to be baffled until the secret is finally revealed in a slam-bang scene at the very end. Thanks to a few winks and nods along the way, however, many readers will have guessed long before the veil has fallen from the face of the killer.

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of, most recently, "A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization."

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