Monday, November 30, 2015

Trust Your Neighbor? Not in Mette Ivie Harrison's Second Mormon Mystery, HIS RIGHT HAND

Mette Ivie Harrison's second crime novel, with its December 1 release, is a terrific addition to the winter reading list. It's an excellent gift for most mystery readers (the only exceptions would be devoted cozy fans who don't read other forms) -- and an even better gift to oneself, for a powerful journey into a little-understood but all-American culture: that of a middle-class community of Mormons, in today's Utah.

Like Linda Castillo's framing of Amish culture, or Donna Leon's of Venetian, Harrison portrays the gentle force of isolation that can arrive with a community where belief or geography draws a line of defense -- "people who live here" know each other, and know the rules of interaction, in a way that outsiders can't.

In the opening of HIS RIGHT HAND, the second Linda Wallheim mystery, Linda's quickly aware of unusual frictions around her. The scene is a three-couple evening out, the "annual bishopric dinner" where her husband Kurt, the bishop, is host to his closest assistants Tom and Carl, and all three wives. A Mormon bishop is not at all similar to a Catholic one -- the task is a lay leadership one, heavy with prayer and study, yes, but very much "one of the people" agreeing to manage the local community, known as the ward. It's all a volunteer effort, laid on top of working full-time jobs. So for Kurt, Tom and Carl are essential: "Without them, the job of bishop would have overwhelmed Kurt. They were his right hand in more than one way," Linda reflects.

But Carl and his wife Emma don't show up as planned, Carl's not answering Kurt's phone calls, and when Linda places her own call to Emma instead, the background conversation reveals fractures in Carl and Emma's marriage that make Linda suspect the relationship is in deep trouble, and possibly abusive.

A bishop's wife, in Harrison's world, gets as heavy an assignment as her husband but with no formal standing: Her husband relies on her to let him know when pastoral care is needed by women and children in the community, and to do her best to smooth over the normal life frictions around her. (And that's on top of being a somewhat "dated" version of a wife, plus mom.) Linda's ready to pry a bit into the lives of this couple who live near her. And when Carl and Emma finally arrive at the restaurant, she's on Emma's side in what might be an uneven situation where the men aren't respecting the women -- at least, as Linda sees things:
I wasn't going to let Carl off so easily. "We're all God's children, here to do His work to serve each other," I said to him. "The form that service takes surely matters less than the fact that we have a joint purpose." I watched Emma nod once and set her hands on the table, folded.

But Carl didn't let it go. "We may have a joint purpose, but our roles are entirely different. Women have one path to follow and men have another. We can only find true perfection in fulfilling our roles completely, and accepting that God is the one who chooses who is to have one role and who is to have the other."
When Emma opts to head home, away from this pontificating, Carl hurries out to join her. And that's the last Emma sees of him -- his death soon after leaves her drenched in guilt for her suspicions about him, her own harsher-than-usual words, and the possibility that she's overlooked what's going on in her neighbors' lives, when she's supposed to be paying attention and helping her husband know where to add extra caring and support.

Harrison's explanations of Mormon (Church of Latter-Day Saints) life can sometimes come across as a bit stiff and lesson-like. But her characters, especially Linda and Kurt, are rich and well rounded, and Linda's mix of guilt and curiosity, and soon her determination to fix things, are easy to believe and to empathize with. So are Linda's regular lapses from the submissive role she knows she "ought" to take with Kurt as she probes the situation and the people around her who may have had motives to
murder Carl.

A second powerful plot line is the fracturing taking place in Linda's own family, where one of her grown sons announces his identity and life choices in ways that make her unsure whether she'll be able to hold her family together. Soon the issues in her home prove to be a rippled echo of the ones stressing the community at large -- including, oddly enough, Carl and Emma's family, too.

Harrison's pacing is strong, and her portrayals of stress and mental illness ring valid, no matter what community or religion is involved. For many readers, this will be a first look inside Mormon family life, and Harrison is clear and proud as she opens the doors and windows for newcomers.

If there's a flaw here, it's in Linda's impulsiveness, which at times goes well beyond curiosity and the urge to make amends, into meddling and deliberately ignoring her husband's more tempered pace. I found the same uneasiness with her choices in Harrison's first book, The Bishop's Wife -- but let's face it, the poor choices of amateur sleuths are building blocks of this genre! Here, it wasn't enough to spoil the pleasure of this well-spun mystery and Linda's struggles with her beliefs about God and the faith she upholds. A really good read, and I strongly recommend this book! Yes, you'll get more out of HIS RIGHT HAND if you read The Bishop's Wife first -- but Harrison's explanations fill in the details quickly, and reading the pair in inverse order will be just about as good.

From Soho Crime, again -- a great choice for bookshelves that feature strong mysteries with unforgettable settings and all-too-human motives.

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