The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman (Arbor House: $15.95)
"Murder in the Cathedral" it's not, although the religious setting gives this otherwise routine detective novel an extra dimension of interest. Rina Lazarus, 26 and beautiful, is the recent widow of a man belonging to an Orthodox Jewish sect with its own village in the hills northeast of Los Angeles. Choosing to remain in this protected enclave with her small son after her husband's death, Rina has been given the job of tending the women's ritual bath, an assignment not only providing the author with an exotic locale but a unique opportunity to explain Orthodox customs to her readers.
Though these descriptions tend to slow the pace of an already leisurely story, they are helpful and enlightening, touching on the same ground investigated in depth in Lis Harris' sensitive nonfiction book, "Holy Days."
During the day, Rina teaches science at the community's high school, her duties at the bath merely a way of supplementing her small income. She has just finished tidying the dressing rooms and settled down to grade papers when anguished shrieks shatter the tranquillity of the settlement. Heedlessly rushing out into the night, Rina glimpses a running figure; then finds the last ritual bather lying battered, bleeding and terror-stricken in the woods adjoining the bathhouse; clearly a rape victim but mercifully alive.
The detective assigned to the case is Peter Decker, a semi-tough Los Angeles police officer who has previously investigated various incidents of vandalism in the isolated foothill community. The questioning goes slowly, impeded by the taboos and restrictions required by the victim's religious beliefs. Rina, more worldly than the other women in Yeshiva Ohavei Torah, becomes the voluntary liaison with the police; interpreting the religious regulations, persuading her neighbors to cooperate, and generally facilitating the inquiries.
Given a sympathetic divorced detective and a winsome widowed heroine, a tentative romance is inevitable, creating a situation eerily similar to the recent film "Witness," in which a police officer finds himself emotionally drawn to a devout Amish widow, a denomination with many superficial similarities to this particular sect. In "The Ritual Bath" as in that movie, the romance vies with the crime for our attention, here superseding it almost entirely. Though other, nastier attacks occur at appropriate intervals, they soon become incidental to the love story.
With a solitary and only temporary exception, Kellerman's main characters are universally appealing; the residents of the Orthodox village patient and reasonable, the police officers gamely overcoming their initial misgivings about the odd customs of the strangers in their midst. Aware that a suspense story needs a dollop of brutality, the author introduces a thoroughly repulsive gang of teen-age hoodlums to attack Rina in a parking lot, but Kellerman's social conscience wins out, and the villains are well on their way to rehabilitation almost as soon as they're caught.
Because the religious community is established as a near-utopian society of scholars and philosophers, creating the requisite number of suspects becomes a serious problem. Though the reader is frequently reminded that the district has been terrorized by a "Foothill Rapist," it is obvious from the beginning that these particular atrocities don't fit his modus operandi. On the other hand, to make the perpetrator a member of the ethnically mixed neighborhood surrounding the enclave would undo all the author's careful efforts at building interfaith tolerance.
Faced with the Talmudic dilemma inherent in the material, Kellerman is obliged to find a compromise rapist; one who straddles both worlds without belonging to either. The result is a sweetly romantic novel spiced with what soon seems egregious violence, tied up with the most contrived ending since "The Princess and the Pea."
As an introduction to the practices of an intensely traditional branch of Judaism, "The Ritual Bath" is engaging and informative, though mystery fans may think the book has been filed on the wrong shelf.