Book Review: Bright & Beautiful by Amber Belldene

When the brilliant and beautiful poet laureate of California turns up dead on the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, amateur sleuth Rev. Alma Lee is thrilled to receive a license to meddle.

All Things introduced us to the Episcopalian priest, Reverend Alma Lee, vicar of St. Giles, in San Francisco’s Mission District. Her beloved Mission deals with the effects of gentrification while still sheltering the economically fragile and unhoused. Alma is surprised to get a call from the Right Reverend Ronaldo Vasquez, Bishop of California, who tells her to get to Grace Cathedral right away. 

No problem racing to the cathedral (in a taxi, no-less, paid for by the diocese): “dumped by her would-be soulmate Rabbi Naomi Cohen and dogged by a pushy organizational coach, she is itching for a distraction.” The bishop tells Alma that there has been a murder at Grace Cathedral. The victim is Dara Chey-Walker, the poet laureate of California. Her body was found on the circular prayer labyrinth. It seems she fell from one of the two towers. Chey-Walker is wearing a wedding gown: tragically, she was to have been married that morning. Oddly, there’s a chemical bleach smell coming from the body that reminds Alma “of swimming with friends at the Mission Pool.”

Bishop Vasquez names Alma the “diocesan liaison to the police department for this investigation,” parsing his reasons, in the presence of San Francisco Detective Dina Sokolov, adroitly. 

“Why me?”

 

“Because you understand how the police work, dear.” He patted my forearm. “Because of your relationship—” he inflected the word, making it sound saccharine and naughty at the same time “—with Detective Garza, and your experience assisting with the Jean Wong case, which was just as high profile as this one.”

 

Sokolov cleared her throat and lifted her brows.

 

The bishop continued. “Of course, you aren’t allowed to interfere in this investigation. No amateur sleuthing, Alma. This isn’t an episode of Father Brown. It’s real life, and priests must not meddle in police affairs.”

 

Just as Sokolov faced me, no doubt checking my expression for acceptance or argument, the Bishop Vasquez winked one bright brown eye at me.

 

Holy bishop’s shit! He was totally giving me permission to get nosy. Or maybe he just had a speck of dust in his eye?

Father Brown? How did the bishop know streaming episodes of Father Brown on Netflix was her guilty pleasure? After a quick consult with Damien Gough, the Dean of the Cathedral, Alma’s convinced she has the bishop’s “permission to meddle.” Quick background: the Gough family is old-school San Francisco, wealthy and well-connected…and connected to the crime: Damien’s brother Brent was engaged to the dead poet laureate. 

Alma has an engaging personality: perspicacious, keeps-her-own-counsel, generous, and available to all her parishioners. She’s the bisexual, half-Chinese, half-Mexican child of San Francisco’s Mission District: her parents run Lee’s grocery on Mission Street. Even wearing a clerical collar, Alma is a far cry from Brent Gough, the grieving fiancé, and his lanky, private-school educated daughter Katherine (Kat).

Kat’s a puzzle—pretty, bedazzled with multiple piercings, rings, and “pink, sparkly nail polish,” all on a frame nearly as tall as her bulky, athletic father. Alma’s sure she’ll “have to do some sleuthing to discover the preferred pronoun for the child.” While talking with Kat, Alma, indulging in “pastoral curiosity,” learns that Kat had a fraught relationship with her almost step-mother. Dara constantly said inappropriate things like we’d love you just as much if you were a lesbian or saying Kat had permission “to be ‘gender non-conforming’” (visualize air quotes). Kat interjects, “no shit my dad’s not a homophobe” given that Uncle Damien is gay: “And being tall and kick ass at field hockey doesn’t make me gay.”

“I’m short and I suck at field hockey, so that’s definitely not what made me gay.”

 

Kat spluttered. “Are you? Sorry.”

 

I patted her back. “No need to apologize. You didn’t insult me. And yes, I’m totally queer. One hundred percent bisexual.”

 

She frowned. “I’m no ace at math, but I don’t think that adds up.”

 

I turned up my palms. “Math, schmath. I promise, it’s just true.”

 

“Well, it’s nice to know I can keep my options open.” She giggled, then chortled so hard that when her grief-stricken father and uncle appeared, her face twisted guiltily and she choked on her own laughter.

No matter. Brent appreciates Alma’s willingness to assist the police. Alma is flattered but she remembers her ex-boyfriend Cesar’s counsel about the likelihood of guilty parties: “nine times out of ten, it’s the boyfriend/husband, or in this case—the groom.” 

Alma is swimming in assistants, would be Watsons to her Sherlock: the groom’s brother Dean Damien Gough, her former girlfriend Rabbi Naomi Cohen, and her first love, Detective Cesar Garza. Ultimately, it’s Alma’s abilities of observation and analysis, and most importantly, her willingness to revisit her initial assumptions, that crack the case. Bright & Beautiful isn’t as successful romantically for Alma but Alma has her friends, her work, and an organizational coach that could whip us all into shape. 

Don’t let Belldene’s deceptively breezy writing style mask her perceptive observations about people and their motivations—particularly about what divides and connects us. I’m looking forward to Alma’s next adventure. With her kick-ass style and self-deprecating attitude, the Reverend Alma Lee’s adventures would make a great addition to Netflix’s stable of chill clerical sleuths. Make it so producers: the San Francisco location makes the series even more of a win-win.

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