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The more Linda Wallheim learns about Salt Lake City polygamist Stephen Carter, the more the Mormon bishop's wife-turned-amateur sleuth realizes that each of his five wives has a valid motive for his murder.
Linda and her husband, Kurt, were invited to the polygamist's gated city compound after their son, who has left the LDS Church, became engaged to the family's oldest daughter.
Meanwhile, back home in Draper, Linda remains troubled by her ongoing conflicts with her devout husband. The couple, parents of five grown sons, are fighting over official church policy regarding gay families. The Wallheims' issues have boiled over after their youngest son came out before reporting to serve his LDS mission. More deeply buried is Linda's trauma over the loss, years earlier, of her baby daughter.
That's the provocative ripped-from-the-wardhouse fictional plot for Mette Ivie Harrison's third Mormon mystery, "For Time and All Eternities," which the Utah writer will launch at a King's English reading on Wednesday.
Harrison is contracted by her New York-based indie publishing company, Soho Crime, to write another book in the series, this one about Mormons and immigration, set during the 2016 presidential election (working title: "Celestial Security"). Yet the Layton writer has bigger ambitions. She has mapped out 10 Linda Wallheim mysteries, all of the stories unfolding while the character's husband is serving as bishop of a fictional Draper congregation.
Mining Utah issues for real-time plots • The series opener, "The Bishop's Wife," published in 2014, earned national best-seller status, attracting attention from The New York Times, USA Today, NPR and the Los Angeles Times. Soho Crime doesn't release sales numbers, but associate publisher Juliet Grames characterizes the company as "breathtakingly happy with sales."
"We are very, very happy with the performance of this series and the feedback we've gotten from people," says Grames, underscoring the press's interest in mysteries that convey a sense of place and culture. "It's clear she's reached a lot of readers."
The "Bishop's Wife" series is intriguing for how it might read differently to national and local audiences, even beyond expected differences in responses among mainstream or more liberal Mormon readers.
In the local book scene, "The Bishop's Wife" mysteries are unusual in the way they mine contemporary Mormon and Utah issues to inspire their nearly real-time plots. "What I am doing more and more is chronicling the life of modern Mormonism," says Harrison, noting "For Time's" dedication to "my sister Mama Dragons," an advocacy group for mothers of gay children. "And that meant I had to take the good and the bad. The good is there's constantly more things to write about."
The bad might be when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes headlines, Harrison is sent back for more rewrites, such as the church's November 2015 policy change regarding gay families, called the "exclusion policy" by critics. That sent Harrison back to her keyboard for massive rewrites, as many as 13 drafts over the next six months, reshaping what she thought had been a nearly finished draft of "For Time."
"I feel like she is taking on the institutions of Mormon culture in a way that I can't think of another mystery writer taking on," says Anne Holman, manager and co-owner of The King's English.
'Present-tense Mormonism' • In reading "For Time" this week, University of Utah literature professor Christopher T. Lewis compiled some 40 contemporary references that average Mormons might find controversial, ranging from gay suicide to a series of church-published Gospel Topics essays about less faith-promoting versions of the sect's history. Lewis, an assistant professor in the U.'s World Languages & Cultures department, has an interest in Mormon fiction.
Even the book's title "For Time and All Eternities" suggests the story is anchored in "concrete, present-tense Mormonism," Lewis says, as it borrows a phrase from Mormon sealing rites, and then twists it to make eternity plural. "This alludes to the polygamous scriptural foundation of eternal marriage, but also serves as a reminder that eternity can't be contained or constrained by prescriptive doctrines or policies," Lewis says. "For Linda, that 's' opens up space in the celestial kingdom for both her nonbelieving son and her gay son."
The Wallheim series doesn't seem nearly as popular among Mormon readers. Numbers are hard to confirm, as the book isn't sold in the church-owned Deseret Book, while reviews in the liberal Mormon "bloggernacle" sphere have less of a glowing tone. "If you don't mind a polemic, it's a provocative piece of work," summarizes Julie J. Nichols, a fiction writer and English professor at Utah Valley University, in her recent review of "For Time" for the Association of Mormon Letters blog .
Polemic isn't a critique that's come up in mainstream reviews, Grames says, while adding that Harrison "has a point of view and something to say."
Baking and solving murders • Beyond the novel's hot-button topics of polygamy and gay issues, the central character sets the series apart. Linda Wallheim is an unusual literary character, as she is deeply Mormon and deeply maternal.
Outwardly, she appears to be a traditional stay-at-home mother, caught up in supporting her husband's ecclesiastical role and hosting regular Sunday dinners for her adult sons and their wives. Yet in her internal dialogue, Linda questions nearly everything, including gender roles, sexual identity and how God does or doesn't answer prayers.
The character attempts to follow her spiritual promptings when she finds women or children in vulnerable situations.
"To her, baking lemon danishes for her son on a mission and checking out people's alibis are extensions of the same self-acknowledged impulse to mother everyone," Lewis says. Drawing upon a phrase from a beloved Mormon hymn, Lewis characterizes her as "embracing a radical 'Do what is right; let the consequence follow' philosophy" that doesn't rule out digging a secret grave for a murder victim.
"Linda is this metaphor for the problems I see with even the best version of Mormon femininity and motherhood," says Harrison, a long-married wife and mother of five who calls herself a "Mormon in progress" in her Huffington Post religion columns. "She keeps bumping into contradictions that she can't resolve. And that deep, festering wound of her missing daughter keeps drawing her into things that she shouldn't do, and she knows she shouldn't do. Every mystery that draws her in is about her having to fix this thing she has never really resolved."
Mette Ivie Harrison reading
The Layton writer launches "For Time and All Eternities," the third in her Mormon murder mystery series.
When • Wednesday, Jan. 11, 7 p.m.
Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
About Mette Ivie Harrison
The writer, 46, who lives in Layton, was raised in New Jersey and Provo in a family of 11 siblings. At age 19, she graduated from Brigham Young University and went on to earn a doctorate in Germanic languages and literature from Princeton University.
She married Matt Harrison, whom she met on the high-school swim team, and the couple have five children.
In 1999, she sold her first young-adult novel, "The Monster in Me," about a teen girl who is fostered by a Mormon family in Heber. She went on to publish a series of princess-themed young-adult novels. After some publishing setbacks, she drafted the adult mystery "The Bishop's Wife" as a lark, thinking she would be giving up writing.
"I wanted to write a book in which a Mormon stay-at-home mom showed how smart and powerful she was, even though people overlooked her and thought of her as invisible," she said when she launched the book in December 2014.
For the past two years she has written a regular column about religion for The Huffington Post, in which she refers to herself as a "Mormon in progress." She has taught writing and literature courses at Weber State University and online. She speaks and posts regularly about the writing process as a way of giving back to early mentors, Harrison says.