“Truth Beat” is Maine author Brenda Buchanan’s third Joe Gale mystery. It starts not with a bang – those come later – but with more of an audible gasp when Father Patrick Doherty of St. Jerome’s Catholic Church is found dead in the rectory garden. Gale, a reporter for the Portland Daily Chronicle, is fast on the scene after getting a call from one of his most reliable sources, 80-year-old Stella Rinaldi with eyes like a hawk, about an ambulance that had pulled up at the church just after 6 that morning.

News spreads fast in the small suburban community of Riverside, just outside Portland, Maine. When Joe drops by the Rambler, the town diner and gossip hub, to gather reactions to the news for his story, details are still scant, but speculation abounds. A heart attack is the general consensus. That speculation, however, shifts when another source, one of the first responders who had been on the scene, later provides Joe with the information that an empty pill bottle was found in the priest’s pocket. When the state toxicology report comes back, however, an overdose is ruled out. Instead, the death becomes a homicide investigation, as the autopsy shows blunt force trauma to the head as the cause of death.

Even before this point in the story, the author begins to weave intriguing threads of possibility. The most significant is grounded in the fact that Father Doherty, though beloved by most in the community, was something of a pariah in the diocese for publicly repudiating the bishop a decade earlier for the church’s paltry response to the widening priest sexual abuse scandal. It won Doherty no favors among the church hierarchy; instead, he was put in charge of the wrenching consolidation of parishes in southern Maine brought on by declining membership and escalating legal judgments stemming from the scandal.

Digging into the private details of the priest’s life, Joe learns that Father Patrick was apparently involved in fencing religious artifacts from the decommissioned churches through contacts he’d made with Boston mobsters. He also learns that Father Patrick was a member of a group of mostly middle-aged men who gathered regularly to share stories and support one another. The group, known as “Frig It” – a derivative of “Friends Will Get You Through” – kept communal secrets, including the fact that Father Patrick was even a member.

Slowly, Joe begins to learn more of the hidden truth and rumors about Father Patrick’s life, including that he was possibly gay. This gets coupled with rabble-rousing street protests against the church, spearheaded by an outsider wing-nut who has come to town. Speculation about a relationship that Father Patrick may have been involved in thickens the mystery.

The arc of the investigation is further complicated by a series of bombings around the local high school. Could the death of the priest and the bombings be linked in some way?

The premises of the story are intriguing and compelling, and the plotting is handled fairly well. Problematic from the start, however, is character development, greatly compounded by the large cast of primary and secondary characters. Fifteen different characters are introduced in the first two chapters, with little or no substantive, memorable detail defining many of them. The author also fails to adequately develop the relationship between Joe and his girlfriend, Christie Pappas, a waitress at the local diner. The chief purpose she seems to serve in the story is to introduce the role of her teenage son, Theo, who proves seminal to resolving a central tenet of the plot.

Developing a series based on a recurring central character such as Joe Gale always presents a challenge: how to ensure that each installment can stand on its own without being redundant. While the background on characters in “Truth Beat” is sparse, hobbling the story’s momentum, the fundamental plot kept me reading.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. “Dream Singer” was also a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website: