Friday, February 17, 2017

Third Linda Wallheim Crime Novel, FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES, from Mette Ivie Harrison

There's a marvelous uncertainty about jumping into a crime fiction series as a reader, not starting with the first book. Will the experience be more powerful because the author has grown in the process of writing earlier books in the series? Or lack resonance because you as the reader don't really know what's developed in the protagonist's life before this book? Or will it be sort of neutral -- because the author is skillful enough to paint the important details of the past without being long-winded, so it doesn't matter whether you've read the earlier books or not?

An example of a series where it's important to read in sequence is David Downing's John Russell espionage series, set in Berlin, Germany, during the Second World War. Russell and his lover Effi Koenen, an actress uneasily performing for the German High Command as John forcibly serves British, American, Russian, and German needs, grow and change in their priorities and goals across the series (and across the war). Start with Zoo Station and savor the author's process, the characters' journeys, and the plots that stand alone in each book, yet dovetail smoothly into the war's history.

A parallel crime fiction series with a very different feel is another Second World War series, the Billy Boyle investigations, written by James Benn. Boyle, new generation in a family of Boston cops, works secretly for General Eisenhower as a detective, and although subsequent books sketch in deftly some of the adventures Boyle and his friends experienced in the earlier ones, his development is the kind you'd expect for a police detective growing more skillful and more dedicated over the years -- it's enjoyable to enter the series at any book, and even to skip around among them. Benn frames each as its own special world of risk and intrigue.

Where in this set of considerations should we place the books by Mette Ivie Harrison? Her third in her Linda Wallheim series, like the other  two (The Bishop's Wife, His Right Hand) exposes the protagonist to a disturbed family situation that she feels obligated to address -- because she is the wife of a leader in the family's religious community, the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aka LDS). FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES sees Linda Wallheim grapple with another of the reasons that she finds her church difficult: its history of plural marriage and the fragments of existing cults that still cling to that tradition. Wallheim's earlier "amateur sleuth" investigations have involved the duty of spouses to each other, and the acceptance (or rejection) of same-sex love when family members reveal they no longer fit the church's doctrines.

In a sense, Harrison's series resembles Benn's -- the protagonist does not rely on her emotional or mindful learning from earlier books as she goes along, and Harrison's adept portrayal of the church she herself loves supports each book's plot well. When friction arises at the start of this third book, Wallheim is horrified by what she hears from her son Kenneth as he reveals details about a new girlfriend:
There was a long pause and I realized we weren't done with the difficult part of the conversation. "We met at a former Mormons group. We call it Mormons Anonymous."

Mormons Anonymous -- like Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous? As if my religion were some kind of addictive behavior that you had to recover from?
Harrison has been open in sharing some of her own struggles with that church. Having experienced a profound loss of faith and then a restoration of it, she is a member in good standing in the LDS. Her website admits that her first crime novel was part of her struggle with how to face the conflicts in the group. She is careful to note the differences between her own faith journey and Linda Wallheim's; still, she is clearly still tugging at the most painful issues of the mainstream LDS structure, and showing some of the issues through her fiction.

Wallheim stumbles, through wanting to help her son, into a group that's living with plural marriage -- the usual form, multiple wives (and children) to one powerful husband. She's soon aware of dysfunctional undercurrents in the situation, and overdoes her involvement.

When the plot blossoms into a death, possibly a murder, Wallheim makes an enormous error of judgment (and making an error of judgment is of course classic in an amateur sleuth plot): She goes along with not calling in the police.

And here, as a mystery reader, I found myself in deep disagreement -- I could not "buy" that this experienced wife of a dedicated church leader would jeopardize her marriage and commit a crime herself (helping to cover up the death) for the sake of holding this terrible family together.

My flaw? Or the book's? I'd love to hear from other readers on this issue.

However, my reaction changes how I feel about the series: If you are new to it, start with the first two books, please! You'll have a good chance of bonding to this smart, questioning, impromptu investigator and grasping the love and (overblown?) sense of responsibility that drive her into the sleuth role. And in that case, you'll definitely want to have book 3, FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES, to fit into the arc of narrative and the important changes to Wallheim's own family.

I'd suggest not jumping into book 3 without the others ... I think it won't stand well on its own, but may well be critical to read before we all have the chance to savor Harrison's fourth book in the series (which is doubtless mostly written at this point). Like Louise Penny's books, there's clearly an overall progress through the series -- and I want to enjoy every bit of it. From Soho Crime, another must-read series.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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