'The Bishop's Wife' tears at facade of normalcy

Friday , January 30, 2015 - 11:26 AM

“The Bishop’s Wife,” Soho Crime, 2014, (http://sohopress.com/books/the-bishops-wife/) stands alone as a fine addition to crime fiction. It has a strong main plot, an almost-as-compelling chief secondary plot, the requisite twists and turns and an exciting climax. As a Mormon-themed novel, penned by active Mormon wife and mother Mette Ivie Harrison, the novel is unique for two reasons: It has a Mormon, stay-at-home mom as its narrator and protagonist, and it deals frankly and provocatively with discrimination, subtle and frank, that is part of a church with a male hierarchy.

The book is a great mystery read, and only the fact that I had to work the next morning kept me from finishing it with an all-night read. In a Draper LDS ward, Bishop Kurt Wallheim, and the bishop’s wife, Linda, receive an early-morning visit from ward member Jared Helm, and his daughter, Kelly, 5. Jared reports that his wife, Carrie, has abandoned the family. Jared is an immature young man, struggling with his marriage. As the author has noted, the story is inspired by the disappearance of Susan Powell a few years ago. However, the developing plot does not mimic the turns of the Powell case. As Carrie Helm seems to virtually disappear, Linda Wallheim, a mother of sons, becomes protective of toddler Kelly, who seems a substitute for the daughter she lost to a stillbirth years earlier. She also becomes sympathetic to Carrie Helm’s parents, who use the media to try to indict Jared and his family as culpable in Carrie’s disappearance.

The main subplot involves the illness and death of ward member, Tobias Torstensen, who has been married 30 years to his second wife, Anna. The experience brings Linda and Anna into a close friendship. As Tobias nears death, questions about his first wife’s death — there is no grave and no one seems to know how she died, even her two sons — arise. Through a series of incriminating discoveries, Linda, Anna and even the police are convinced that mild-mannered Tobias murdered his first wife long ago and never told anyone. However, as is a theme in this novel, the story is more complex, providing new answers as layers of long-held secrets are unveiled.

The deepest relationship in the novel is between Kurt and Linda Wallheim. The author makes their relationship one of mostly mutual value, with the usual frustrations, disagreements and trials supported by the loyalty and love that binds the pair together. Linda, the bishop’s wife, is a liberal Mormon; a former atheist tempered by her husband’s more conventional beliefs. She forgives his occasional patriarchal biases, understanding that she has softened him over the years. Ivie Harrison does a good job of presenting a diverse collection of Wallheim sons, all with distinct personalities on life and spirituality. Linda is closest to the youngest, Samuel, who is a lot like his mother, with the novel having him react to many of the events.

Active Mormons will appreciate how well the usual life of a bishop and his wife are outlined. Kurt is an accountant who barely sees his family between church and tax season, as well as Sunday afternoons and evenings. Linda, as a bishop’s wife, struggles to deal with being the “ward mother” and the listening and action that requires. He deals with the ward’s secrets. While his job necessitates discreetness, he trusts his wife enough to request she visit specific families to offer friendship, kind words and baked goodies. In one scene a troubled ward member, understanding that Linda is a better ear than the bishop for his problem, confides in her.

There is another strong scene early that captures Mormon culture. Linda, helping prepare for a wedding at the ward chapel, consoles the bride’s mom over her disappointment that the wedding is not in the temple. It’s an interesting passage because there’s no scandal attached to the wedding; the pair simply want to get married as soon as possible. Active Mormon parents place a high priority on a temple wedding, and its inclusion adds authenticity.

The disappearance of Carrie Helm carries the novel, as Linda struggles to maintain a relationship with little Kelly after the arrival of her paternal grandfather, a controlling, truly repellent character with obsolete Mormon beliefs. A strength of her character is despite her impetuous nature — which leads her to make wrong assumptions — she’s able to embrace the truth when it’s revealed. And it’s several twists, and a key discovery, that makes Linda again question her ability to discern what’s righteous and what’s evil.

And the truth doesn’t come easy in “The Bishop’s Wife.” The “normalcy” of an LDS ward is taken apart layer by layer as serious injuries and dysfunctions are revealed. And these layers can’t be peeled back in a nice manner. They are torn off the facade of the ward, with the requisite pain, bleeding and adverse consequences.

If there’s a quibble with “The Bishop’s Wife,” it’s Linda’s specific action that leads to the climax. I’m not sure Ivie Harrison’ character, while impulsive, would willingly put herself into such certain danger. But it’s an exciting scene nevertheless, and wraps up a novel that’s well worth reading, either all night long or during a particularly boring Sacrament meeting.

dgibson@standard.net.

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