Opening line: Mormon bishop’s wife isn’t an official calling.
Some happy book browsing in Foyles led me to a rather unusual American crime novel a few months back. Mette Ivie Harrison’s 2014 novel The Bishop’s Wife is set in present-day Utah, whose capital Salt Lake City is also the centre of Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). The novel’s primary investigator, as the title indicates, is the wife of a Mormon bishop: Linda Wallheim lives in the city of Draper, and leads a busy life looking after her family and supporting parishioners. When neighbour Jared Helm arrives at the bishop’s house in a distressed state early one morning, claiming that his wife Carrie has left him, Linda is drawn into a complex case that she suspects may involve domestic abuse…or even murder.
Undoubtedly, one of the most satisfying aspects of this novel is the insider view it offers of everyday life in a Mormon community. The novel explores key Mormon beliefs (such as the importance of family members being ‘sealed’ to one another so that they can be united for eternity), the way Mormon children are raised and educated, and the importance of community service. At the same time, the novel acknowledges that aspects of the church are open to criticism, such the obstacles it places in the path of those who wish to leave. It’s also very open in its consideration of the highly gendered roles Mormonism assigns to men and women, and the possible abuses of power that its traditional patriarchal structures invite.
Linda herself is a very appealing figure. She is a strong, devout woman, who thinks critically about the Mormon community and her place in it as a wife, mother and individual, rather than simply accepting the status quo. She falls into the role of amateur detective by chance, and, while guilty of some misjudgments and mistakes, has a moral compass that’s true. She reminds me a bit of Faye Kellerman’s feisty investigator Rina Decker, whose cases are typically linked to the life of her Jewish community and allow their author to explore modern Jewish life.
The Bishop’s Wife is the first in a series of mysteries featuring Linda Wallheim, and I’m keen to read more (the second, His Right Hand, has just appeared). If you like fast-paced crime novels, then this kind of novel is probably not for you, but if you prefer crime fiction that makes space to explore complex religious, social and moral issues, then The Bishop’s Wife is an absorbing and fascinating read.
Author Mette Ivie Harrison is a member of the Mormon church and lives with her husband and five children in Utah. She also blogs for the Huffington Post on religious issues and has written a number of interesting posts (for example about the accusation that the LDS church is a cult). She holds a PhD in German literature from Princeton (ausgezeichnet!).