Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Exciting Debut Mystery, Mormon (LDS): THE BISHOP'S WIFE, Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison is no newcomer as an author -- her children's books have charmed readers and garnered warm reviews over the years, and in 2013 her memoir of being both a dedicated mom and a nationally ranked triathlete, Ironmom, was her entry into the "books for adults" world.

But in THE BISHOP'S WIFE, she provides a well-told and suspenseful murder mystery, in traditional form with amateur sleuth, that's both a page-turner and far more revealing than most nonfiction can be.

In some places, like Utah and some of Illinois, being a member of the Mormon Church -- also known as LDS, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- is as common as being, say, a Protestant or Catholic is in northern New England or the MidAtlantic states. And it is the quintessential American faith, born here with Joseph Smith (in Vermont!) and forged in a fiercely difficult cross-country trek of pioneers looking for a land to nurture, where they could also nurture their religion.

Yet the historic Mormon tie to polygamy makes even the modern version of the religion vulnerable to casual attacks, and there are many other ways in which its differences -- temples, "sealing" family members to each other, the missionary years that many of its teens tackle -- stand out. Even the title Harrison chose for this work of suspense refers to something that's more Mormon (her choice of term; here in Vermont I'd use "LDS" but she explains her choice on her website) and less understood. So here is the book's first paragraph, which tackles both that difference and a familiarity that anyone who's been a deacon, a community leader, even a den mother, troop leader, or class dad or mom, can relate to:
Mormon bishop's wife isn't an official calling. "Bishop's wife" isn't a position listed on ward documents; there's no ceremonial laying-on of hands or pronounced blessings from on high. But if the bishop is the father of the ward, the bishop's wife is the mother, and that meant there were five hundred people who were under my care. I was used to the phone calls in the middle of the night, to the doorbell ringing far too late and far too early. I was used to being looked past, because I was never the person that they were there to see.
That's Linda Wallheim, and look how much you already know about her -- importantly, for a mystery, you can see that she feels responsible for the care of others, and also that she's used to fading back out of the center of things, letting someone else be "the person they were there to see." Those are two admirable characteristics for someone who'll decide to dig into a crime and stick with the investigation.

On this particular morning, at six-thirty (groan), the doorbell's pressed by Jared Helm, one of the newer members of the ward (the church fellowship), carrying his adorable five-year-old daughter.  And it's soon clear that the mom in the family is missing.

Linda's investigation is at first mostly secondhand -- the bits that her husband can reveal without breaking a confidence, the smaller bits that a five-year-old conveys in both words and reactions, and conversations with others.

But Linda has a pressing reason, beyond her usual sense of responsibility, to bond with the little girl in this damaged family: She's suffered the loss of her own daughter, stillborn, and although she has sons and a really good husband, she's wounded in ways she can barely describe -- and it's hurting her own marriage, whether she sees it or not.

So her hunt for the truth of what's happened around her is more than an effort to supplement her husband's role as bishop, more than a dare to herself to face the truth of some of the more manipulative men in her social group. It's her struggle to find a way to carry her loss.

Along the way, Harrison opens up some of the traditions, rules, and controversies with her church. (She is in face a member, after her own spiritual crisis, which she's still walking through. Yes, the loss of a daughter. Can God be good, when such terrible things happen?) Some, I already knew about from attending services and visiting in the homes of Mormon friends, years ago -- like Fast Sunday, a tradition of going without food in order to reflect on the experience and give the money saved to those who need it. And bearing testimony, something that also happens in many an evangelical Protestant congregation -- but in THE BISHOP'S WIFE also includes "small children whose 'testimonies' are whispered into their ears by older children. I disapprove of this practice." And bang, that quickly, we're in Linda's uncomfortable shoes: being smart, educated, committed to her church, and questioning it.

This is where, in some ways, the revelations of the book could have been easier for its author if done as nonfiction (which in some ways they have been, both on her website and in Ironmom). It's far too easy for readers to assume that the author "matches" the protagonist. I was aware of pulling away from the story at moments like this, questioning how close that identification really was -- and in some ways that's not so great for staying in the story, feeling the suspense build.

So it's a measure of how well-chosen Harrison's plot twists are, that in spite of those moments of pulling back, I kept reading, reading, reading -- deep into the night, in fact. As Linda discovers her own naive misconception of some of the marriages around her, and the limits of what her role allows her, she takes risks that graduate from emotional and marital to being threatened physically.

The writer of any "amateur sleuth" mystery needs to convince us that we too, in that person's shoes, would take risks and face danger. Harrison succeeds completely, so that Linda's reasoning makes sense, her actions become necessary, and the escalating situation resonates:
"I could come in and help you clean up, If you'd like," I offered. What was I doing? Going into a house alone with a man who might have killed his wife[,] to try to find evidence against him? But I had been drawn into this and I was going to use all the skills I had to resolve it.
Also at stake here, and deftly probed, is Linda's willingness to accept the form of marriage she's agreed to: one where her husband is expected to set limits on her actions, and where her sons question her choices, as well as the religion in which they were raised.

There's a lot going on here, and I was glad to notice that although the criminal investigation wraps up snugly at the end (terrific twists, I have to say!), many of the unraveled parts of Linda Wallheim's life remain to be worked with. It's clear this is the start of a series; I'm looking forward to more.

Grab this book right away if you are fascinated with interior Mormon life; if you're curious about how family and faith traditions come together and want the emotional insight that a work of fiction can allow; if you're brave enough to look at domestic abuse in both a mystery and the culture around us; and if you like well-twisted strands of investigation and discovery. Sure, there are a few patches of Linda's internal dialogue that run long and sometimes slow the pace -- but overall, I felt the balance was worth it. This is an impressive debut mystery for Harrison, and a great finale to the year of strong, diverse mysteries from Soho Crime.

Three cheers for the 2014 crime fiction -- and here's to the adventures of 2015 ahead!

No comments: