HENRY DAVID THOREAU probably would be pleased with the vexation he has caused the town of Concord, Mass. Real-estate development is a contentious issue almost everywhere. But in Concord, where Thoreau lived beside Walden Pond, and where his writings have hallowed almost every bog, these battles have a metaphysical intensity rarely seen outside the Middle East.
Thoreau posed the conflict between nature and commerce in its most elemental terms: the mind that values things for what they are on the one hand, and the mind that sees value only in commercial gain on the other. This antipathy, and the passions it bestirs, form the backdrop for "God in Concord," the eighth in Jane Langton's mystery series that features Homer Kelly, genial ex-urbanite and sometime detective.
The story is based loosely on a recent imbroglio involving Mort Zuckerman, the publisher of U.S. News & World Report, who was proposing to build an office park across the highway from Walden Pond. Only here, the megabuilder is one Jeffrey Grandison, who sits high above Huntington Avenue in Boston, plotting to turn a tract of woods near the pond into a shopping center.
Main Street is also under siege. A brassy, broad-shouldered real-estate baroness named Mimi Pink (Langton has a weakness for eponyms) is conniving to rout the lunch counter and barbershop to make way for her chi-chi boutiques. Meanwhile, suspicious deaths are occurring at the old trailer park across the road from Walden Pond; suggestively, the land will revert to the town when the current residents depart.
Into this pecuniary intrigue steps a Thoreau devotee from India named Ananda Singh. He becomes the foil for Concord's shoulder-shrugging and indifference; Singh cannot comprehend that the town doesn't regard Walden Pond as a shrine. He joins forces with Homer Kelly and a fellow Thoreau buff named Oliver Fry, who together try to stop the Grandison scheme.
This is promising material, with a lot of local charm. Langton however has some unfortunate lapses, especially early on in the novel. She is given to overwriting, diminishing her descriptive passages with too many words. More importantly, she burdens the story with an excess of subplots. These result in irksome shifts in focus; a reader would like to stay with Kelly more. And to keep it all on track, Langton resorts to clumsy plot contrivances that make a reader constantly aware of the machinery crankin g into place offstage.
For all this, however, "God in Concord" has a good-natured quality that puts a reader in a forgiving mind. The specters of the shopping mall and Mimi Pink get the juices flowing. An affecting romance takes place between Singh and Oliver Fry's daughter, Hope. (The contest in Ms. Fry's heart between Singh and Grandison's handsome legman becomes a not-so-subtle metaphor for the battle for the town.)
And Langton, who lives in neighboring Lincoln, has a practiced eye for the politics and people of Concord. She understands the sundry boards and commissions, the tension between the older townies and the horsy J. Crew set. Characters like Homer and Oliver have an emotional reality that suggests she has sat with people like this around kitchen tables. Mr. Fry is especially well-drawn, a man who spends his middle years in a state of simmering outrage at the despoilation of Thoreau's legacy.
Locals will have fun trying to match the characters in "God in Concord" with the folks they know in town. Just possibly, the next pushy realtor to hit the scene will be dubbed a "Mimi Pink." For others, Langton has provided an insightful guide to the peculiar Concord legacy of Thoreau. "Oh. Didn't he steal pies from Mrs. Emerson?" Singh hears over and over. Concord folks said things like that in Thoreau's day, too. Prophets are inconvenient, without honor in their own country. But not so easily dismissed .