Thomas Keneally, . . Doubleday/Talese, $25 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-385-50763-9

A starred or boxed review indicates a book of outstanding quality. A review with a blue-tinted title indicates a book of exceptional importance that hasn't received a starred or boxed review.

OFFICE OF INNOCENCEThomas Keneally. Doubleday/Talese, $25 (336p) ISBN 0-385-50763-1

Keneally steers a young, naïve Australian priest through a series of complex moral choices in his latest novel, which takes place early in WWII with the Japanese forces steadily advancing southward. The insular existence of Catholic cleric Frank Darragh is disturbed when he is approached by a beautiful married woman named Kate Heggarty, whose husband has been captured by the Germans in North Africa. Darragh tries to comfort her, but Heggarty retains her combative stance toward traditional Catholicism as she drifts toward infidelity as a possible means of solace. In spite of his halfhearted efforts to deny her charms, Darragh's growing infatuation becomes an issue when Heggarty is suddenly murdered and the local detectives try to implicate him. Darragh also faces trouble from his conservative monsignor, who sends the priest away on retreat for involving the parish in the investigation. Despite the admonitions of his superior, Darragh puts considerable effort into trying to clarify his role in Heggarty's death, until a U.S. soldier from a nearby American base provides a stunning and compromising revelation regarding the killer's identity. Keneally portrays his protagonist's innocence with a keen but subtle sense of irony, and the surprising plot twists help him steer clear of the usual clichés afflicting novels about compromised clerics. But the true excellence of the book lies in the author's ability to blend his depiction of a seaside village in crisis as the Japanese threaten to invade with the nuances of morality and faith that constantly keep Darragh at odds with himself. The novel lacks the weight of Schindler's List or Keneally's narrative history The Great Shame, but it is a sterling effort on a smaller scale. (Mar. 18)

Forecast:Sales should be solid, despite the out-of-the-way setting and relatively narrow scope.