Some of the mystery genre's most beloved sleuths are women of a certain age. Although their gray hair or wrinkles may relegate them to the shadows of a youth-obsessed culture, their vantage point provides an intimate perspective on their communities that often surpasses that of even law enforcement (think of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple or television's Jessica Fletcher). And when the sleuth is also part of a religion that proscribes specific roles for women, her observations from the sidelines can be even more crucial in understanding the context and consequences of crime in a community.
Such is the case with Linda Wallheim, a sixtysomething sleuth in practicing Mormon Mette Ivie Harrison's debut mystery, "The Bishop's Wife." The mother of five and mystery reader lives with her husband, Bishop Kurt Wallheim, and teenage son Samuel in a close-knit Church of the Latter-day Saints' community in Draper, Utah.
"Mormon bishop's wife isn't an official calling…a position listed on ward documents," Sister Wallheim explains. "There's no ceremonial laying-on of hands or pronounced blessings on high." But the role has its responsibilities — attending ward members' funerals and weddings as part of the Relief Society, an LDS women's group, participating in Bible study and testimonies, serving coffee or food to ward members who seek the bishop's counsel at all hours of the day and night.
Like Jared Helm, a newer member of the ward, who appears at the Wallheims' door before dawn. Jared is seeking the bishop's absolution and reassurance of the young man's own unchallengeable position with God after his wife Carrie's abandonment of him and his 5-year-old daughter, Kelly. Linda, who grieves for the stillborn baby girl she and Kurt lost some years before, finds it unfathomable that a mother would desert her daughter. Yet her knowledge of Jared Helm — his unhappy relationship with Carrie and his right-wing views on the Mormon male's inviolable rights — makes her downright suspicious of his role in Carrie's disappearance.
Linda's suspicions are amplified when Carrie's parents visit Kurt with details of Jared's abusiveness toward Carrie and her despair that she was sealed to him on Earth and in the afterlife by Mormon doctrine.
The mystery behind Carrie's disappearance is only one of the book's threads. Kurt gently encourages Linda to visit Tobias and Anna Torstensen, a long-married couple in the ward who haven't been attending services. Armed with homemade cinnamon rolls, Linda learns that Tobias' heart disease is terminal. As shocking as that news is to his devoted wife, Anna is also concerned with the state of their otherworldly affairs — particularly that Tobias will be united in the afterlife with his deceased first wife, Helena, and not her, since their marriage was not sealed in a Mormon temple ceremony. Digging deeper, Linda learns that Tobias' first wife might not even be dead, a bigger problem for Anna and their marriage than anyone had imagined.
The rights and requirements of Mormon men and women in marriage, remarriage and temple sealing may seem a distraction from solving the mystery of Carrie's or Helena's whereabouts, but Harrison's insider view of Mormon doctrine and religious practices forms a complex tapestry that serves as background and context for the crimes and misdemeanors of the Mormon men and women of Draper. "The doctrine of temple sealing was supposed to make families feel more secure," Linda observes. "But there were times when it shackled a woman to a man who had become a tyrant, simply because of a ceremony performed and because of children created together."
Linda's independent thinking and outspokenness are no surprise to Kurt, but they put her at odds with several men of the church. Linda does find a sense of community and purpose with Mormon women like Anna, who has had a career in banking while married to Tobias, and Gwen Ferris, another young woman who confides in Linda things she would never tell the bishop.
The ward's problems and dark secrets bring Linda to a late-in-life crisis of faith, where she judges herself harshly for not reaching out to help the women around her: "But that had to change," she vows. "I had to change first and make the culture and church change around me."
Watching Linda Wallheim take on the church and its entitled male members as she unravels the mystery of Carrie's and Helena's disappearances is one of the chief pleasures of this richly detailed debut. And even if the reader does not understand much about Mormonism or holds more liberal views on life and marriage than the Latter-day Saints, Linda's negotiation of her first steps toward a new relationship with her church, her family and her community is worth another visit — hopefully soon — to the Wallheims of Draper, Utah.
Woods has written four mysteries in the Charlotte Justice series.
The Bishop's Wife
Mette Ivie Harrison
Soho Press: 343 pp., $26.95