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   Veronica Black is the pen name of Maureen Peters, a Welsh author who has written romance novels under several names. As Black she has written the successful Sister Joan series of mystery novels as well as several non-series mysteries. Her stories are marked by skillful character development and an ability to create an atmosphere of dread that rivals John Dickson Carr.

   The first Sister Joan novel I read was A Vow of Chastity (1992), which is actually the second novel in the series. The story concerns Sister Joan, a nun in the Order of the Daughters of Compassion, who lives in the Order's convent in the Cornwall countryside. She teaches a small class of children from local farms and the nearby gypsy community, along with newcomer Samantha Olive, whose writer father has bought an old house in the area. The nuns have been disturbed by a string of small incidents centered on the convent's chapel, where a crucifix has been moved and holy water, flowers and candles have disappeared.. Sister Joan is further disturbed by the unexpected docility and lack of mischief among her young pupils. Her unease grows after a school project requires visits to the student's homes and she senses a sinister undercurrent in some of the families. Next a beautiful au pair flees in the middle of the night from one of those homes. The sense of menace grows further when Petroc Lee, one of her students, inexplicably vanishes and reaches its crescendo when his body is found a few days later in the chapel.

   Sister Joan embarks on her own investigation of the murder, holding back a good deal of pertinent information from the local police. Her compellingly described investigation leads to a particularly nasty (and quite unlikely) solution. The solution was particularly marred for me by the fact that the drug with which the boy was poisoned is one that has never actually killed anyone. The theoretically lethal dose of this drug is so high that a death could never occur from it in the fashion described in this novel. Those readers who get their information about the dangers of drugs from the mass media may find this believable but I expect a mystery author to know something about the lethal means used in their stories.

   Disappointed though I was with the solution, I enjoyed reading A Vow of Chastity. It was the character of Sister joan and the description of convent life that I found fascinating. Sister Joan is a complex and appealing character who despite her religious commitment may not have quite the right temperament for the cloistered life. Her struggle to maintain a balance between her spiritual obligations on the one hand and her independent spirit and worldly curiosity on the other hand enriches the stories beyond the limitations of the plots.

   Having enjoyed the second novel in the series, I made a point of seeking out the first -- A Vow of Silence (1990). In this novel, the mother superior of Sister Joan's convent dispatches her to investigate rumors of strange behavior at their Order's Cornwall house. One nun has died under suspicious circumstances and another has disappeared.

   In Cornwall, Sister Joan finds many departures from normal convent routine among the nuns headed by the charismatic Mother Ann. For instance, the youngest of the sisters have long, flowing hair and Mother Ann herself wears lipstick and perfume. Sister Joan hears whispers of virgin sacrifice, goddess worship, suicide, and even murder. Her investigation uncovers a grave evil.

   Again, I enjoyed the character of Sister Joan along with the palpably ominous atmosphere. The solution was marginally better than that of A Vow of Chastity. At least it didn't involve any major error of fact that I could detect. Perhaps, if I was Catholic I might have found the heresy uncovered to be more shocking but, frankly, it left me cold. On balance, I enjoyed reading A Vow of Silence but I cannot give it a truly high recommendation.

   The next Sister joan novel I read was A Vow of Sanctity (1993) and I definitely consider it the best of the four I have read. Sister Joan is spending the end of summer in a spiritual retreat and the opportunity to paint near beautiful Loch Morag in Scotland in a furnshed cave high above the loch. She is welcomed by the brothers of the monastery located on a nearby island that can only be reached by a rowboat. She decides to paint and present the monastery with a picture of their church in return for their hospitality.

   The villagers, mostly non-Catholic, are unfriendly, with the exception of two families who overcome their prejudice enough to invite Sister Joan for a meal. She learns that there has been an unhappy history between the two families as the result of past romances. She also learns from them of the legend that the area is stalked by a phantom known as the Black Morag.

   Meanwhile, Sister Joan experiences a growing feeling of unease during her painting sessions at the monastery. She senses hidden eyes upon her -- a feeling that she is being followed. Alone in the convent crypt she suddenly feels the touch of a live hand. The surfacing, in a sudden storm, of a body in the loch, moves Sister Joan to abandon her solitude and ferret out a killer.

   Sister Joan continues to be an engaging character and Black's ability to create a sense of dread is on full display in this novel. This time, however, the mystery has a thoroughly satisfying solution. I would recommend A Vow of Sanctity to any reader and not just those who are most interested in character and milieu. This one is an outstanding mystery.

   My fourth dip into the pool of Blacks Sister Joan series was A Vow of Fidelity (1996). This is a mystery novel that would seem to have a lot going for it: a limited field of suspects, secrets out of the past, and a clear opportunity for Sister Joan to reexamine the lifepath she had chosen. Somehow, it never quite lives up to that potential.

   When someone mails her a photograph of her art school freshmen classmates, it reminds Sister Joan that the group of ten had promised to reunite in 20 years, at Westminster Abbey, on a date just a few days hence.

   Granted permission to attend the reunion, she is surprised to learn that three of the original ten have died in terrible accidents. When a copy of a photo taken of the group subsequently arrives with the dead crossed out and an ominous black circle drawn around her head, she realizes that the accidents probably were not accidents at all. Tensions escalate as the remaining seven agree to participate in a retreat conducted by the Daughters of Compassion and supervised by Sister Joan. With the suspects gathered in the convent, it becomes increasingly evident that the group is targeted by a twisted mind with a fatal grudge. In the end, the fast moving narrative and vivid sense of menace are undermined by some trite plotting and contrived characters. Nevertheless, A Vow of Fidelity is an intriguing puzzle a good part of the way.

   So far, I havent read any more of Blacks novels.