Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Book Reviews: Two Mormon Mysteries Contrasted

A week or so ago, I happened to read two Mormon mysteries back-to-back, which provided for an interesting experience.

The first one was A Killing in Zion by Andrew Hunt.
This book was the second in a series, but, although I hadn't read the first book, I had no trouble catching onto the characters and set up.  This is always a plus in a mystery series.
Hunt has set this series in Salt Lake City in the 1930s, specifically for this book in the summer of 1934, and he clearly revels in his historical research.  He describes streets and buildings I know or have heard about (Sweet's Candy Company, anyone?) and appears to pay meticulous attention to details -- except when he doesn't.
In this particular story, Hunt uses the murder of Rulon Allred  by a polygamist rival as an inspiration for his fictional crime set decades earlier.  He changes the real polygamist towns of Hilldale and Colorado City (collectively known as Short Creek) to Dixie City, but that's OK; it's fiction after all.  However, he's got the polygamists wearing pioneer clothes decades too early; a brief glance at the round-up photos even from the 1950s show that they didn't start their back-to-Brigham look until later.
Also, Hunt has a few other anachronisms which seem to arise from using only books for research and not talking to real people: 1) Family Home Evening.  Uh, that was a David O. MacKay Mormon thing which took hold in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Hunt's a good 30 years too early. 2) His cop protagonist keeps noting how the nearby wildfires have polluted the air in the Salt Lake Valley.  However, what Hunt doesn't seem to be aware of is that this would have made the summer skies look like the winter skies.  In the 1930s, Salt Lake residents used mostly coal in their furnaces, and the result was winter air thick enough to slice -- air that made our current temperature inversions look sparkling clean in comparison.  Hunt's protagonist would surely have thought of this, but Hunt doesn't seem to know about it.  3) The protagonist's wife teaches school at East High.  She's married, has two kids at home, and is pregnant, and she's teaching school in 1934.  Probably not.  Obviously, Hunt wants to make his cop protagonist into a man with modern appeal, a man who thinks of his wife as a partner instead of as a lesser human whose job it was to keep him happy.  While I admire this sentiment, I believe Hunt has pushed it too far past believability.  He seems to have forgotten that 1934 was during the Depression.  I knew a woman (now deceased) who taught school in the Salt Lake Valley in 1934; she had to hide her marriage and lie to her employer in order to keep her job, as it was district policy to fire married women so a man could have the job.  (It was assumed that a married woman would be taken care of by her husband.)  When this woman got pregnant, she had to quit because she could no longer hide her lie.  Thus, I have a hard time believing that this pregnant school teacher whose husband has a good job would be allowed to continue her profession in 1934.
Then there's the problem of travel.  The protagonist and his buddy zip out past Utah Lake to an abandoned army fort without one thought of where they would buy gas.  They also travel south to the fictional Dixie City -- which is somewhere past St. George, Utah -- without a single tire blow-out and without even worrying about the car's overheating in scorching weather.  This is ridiculous.  People who lived in southern Utah at the time used to tie wet burlap to the grills of their cars to help keep the engines and radiators cool.  Heck, I used to drive a 1966 VW Beetle, and it would just shut down in weather over 100 degrees.  Yet Hunt's characters have no car problems at all.  They don't even worry about paying for gas in the height of the Depression.  This bothered me.
Other than that, the book is pretty good.   The protagonist is a bit of a Mary Sue, but the criminal underworld of the polygamist clans was great.
I'd definitely recommend this book to mystery lovers and those who enjoy historical fiction.

I then read His Right Hand by Mette Ivie Harrison, the sequel to The Bishop's Wife, which I reviewed here.

As a mystery, His Right Hand isn't quite as good as The Bishop's Wife: the guilty party is too obvious way too early in the book.  And again, the big problem with setting a series of books in a tight Mormon community is that there's just so very much that must be explained to the non-Mormon, non-Utahn reader.  This does bog things down a bit.
However, I feel that this is an important book, rather than a terrific mystery.  Harrison explores gender issues within a strict religious setting, and that's a very hot topic for 2015.  (Only a few short months ago, Born Again Kim Davis became a homophobic heroine to many who claim to be Christians.) Harrison probes into some pretty deep areas about gender as a construct vs a God-given state.  (I suspect the author may have been reading some feminist literary theory, which is something not very many Mormon women do.)  She forces the reader to think through some difficult things: What does gender mean?  Is it fluid?  How can a person be devout in a religious organization which actively condemns what the said person believes is true about her/his basic identity? What are the downsides to the LDS Law Of Chastity?  How many marital problems are caused by following this doctrine?  How many suffer in silence and ignorance because all discussion is taboo?  How can the kind-hearted religious person who fits the mold possibly understand and accept the person who does not?  These are some might tough questions with which lots of LDS women wrestle.  And I think Harrison's book might make a few more women -- those who perhaps feel that the "Sunday School" answers will do (Note: LDS Sunday School answers to all life's problems are: pray, go to church, read the scriptures.) -- wrestle a bit more and think a bit more deeply.
Thus, while His Right Hand is not a superb mystery, it IS a superb bit of philosophy wrapped into a contemporary mystery novel in a way that will make difficult thinking accessible to the non-academic reader.  I'd like to see this book in the hands of all Utah Relief Society members -- but that image makes me giggle. :)
If you're not from Utah and not a Mormon, you might have some difficult with this book.  However, if gender issues and/or religions grappling with modernization interests you, it might be a good choice anyway.

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