Mette Ivie Harrison swung for the fences, connecting with readers and critics, in her debut mystery, “The Bishop’s Wife,” an insider’s look at marriage and small-town life in a Mormon enclave in Draper, Utah. Linda Wallheim, Harrison’s middle-aged sleuth, possessed a refreshingly independent streak at odds with her conservative faith, making her an insightful guide to the Mormon Church.
The book was enough of a success to spark a series; “His Right Hand” returns to Draper and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and again features Wallheim, a savvy Mormon Miss Marple.
Conscripted by her husband, Bishop Kurt Wallheim, to attend the annual bishopric dinner, Linda witnesses the rigid views of Carl Ashby, an official, regarding the roles of women and men in the Mormon Church. First she overhears an argument between Ashby and his wife, Emma, about his authority in their marriage and then, at dinner, his stern reading of prophet Gordon B. Hinckley’s 1995 Family Proclamation, which “explained why gay marriage was impossible in the Mormon Temple.” It’s clear to Linda he’s a TBM — a True Blue Mormon. “The Church was everything in his life.”
Concerned that Carl’s critical and controlling ways are taking a toll on Emma, Linda plans to pay a “bishop’s wife” visit of comfort and support. Before that can happen, Emma calls to ask about a mysterious “meeting” Carl is attending — Linda wonders if he’s covering for an offense such as gambling, substance abuse or an affair. The Wallheims go to the church to check on Carl and find him dead, a woman’s pink scarf nearby seeming to confirm Linda’s suspicions.
Carl’s death turns Emma into a helpless mess, full of guilt and doubt about her ability to raise their adopted children alone. Meanwhile, the Mormon hierarchy seems to go into overdrive to protect its flock; Emma is urged not to identify her husband’s body because of “her current fragile state.”
Spoiler alert — this is a big one, but it’s also on the book jacket, so it’s something readers can learn before diving into the novel: Carl was biologically female.
The news throws Kurt and the Mormon hierarchy into disbelief and condemnation. In the Mormon church, gender is integrally tied to an individual’s soul. But Linda is more forgiving, believing, “God loves us all, no matter how disgusting we are to others. God would have seen the man Carl Ashby was trying to be.”
Linda’s knowledge of the LGBT community comes from her own struggles with sexuality and church doctrine in a failed first marriage, a dark time in her life that she blames the church for in its attempts to keep Mormon women ignorant of the basics of sex. Was poor Emma similarly duped and had lived in a sexless marriage all these years? It’s a theory that may be hard for those outside of the faith to believe, but Harrison mounts a convincing argument.
Between consoling her husband over the unsettling news of his friend and attending to the fragile Emma, both victims of Carl’s secrets, there is a murder to sort out, a challenge Linda feels Carl’s spirit is calling her to accept. Her quest leads her to Grant Rhodes, Carl’s secret lover who knew the person beneath the bombastic façade, and some surprising revelations about Carl’s early life that present more suspects for Linda and readers to consider.
Amid all the secrets and lies, Linda begins to think that she should come clean to her sons about her past. But she hesitates; her children are mostly grown, with only the youngest, 18-year-old Samuel, still at home. A Sunday dinner brings revelations from Samuel that test Kurt’s love for his youngest son and bring the Mormon LGBT debate directly to the Wallheims’ front door.
At the time Harrison wrote the novel, the Mormon Church had seemingly recovered from its failed support of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008 and tentatively begun to signal more love and understanding of LGBT Mormons. November’s stunning reversal of that position, which denounced members in gay marriages, gives “His Right Hand” even more currency as it explores the agonizing dilemmas faced by people who believe in gay rights while struggling to accept Mormon doctrine. It will be fascinating to see what gold Harrison mines from the contradictions.
His Right Hand
Mette Ivie Harrison
Soho Crime: 352 pages, $26.95
Woods is the editor of several anthologies and four novels in the Charlotte Justice mystery series.