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Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

Soho Crime, 325 pages, $26.95

“The Bishop’s Wife” is an unexpected book. Although religion is the artery of this book, there is no proselytizing. Instead there is a heroine with doubts, faith, strength, failings, commitment, and wistfulness. She is a Mormon, but not just any Mormon. She is the wife of a Mormon bishop. Linda Wallheim describes herself as the mother of her ward (congregation). This is where her natural nosiness, intuition, and empathy find a home.

Linda is not all butter cookies and canning for the apocalypse. She is such a real and human character that I Googled Mette Ivie Harrison to find out more about the author. She herself is a Mormon and her philosophy and life’s experiences mirror Linda’s to a large extent. Harrison was temporarily an atheist who, nevertheless, remained part of her Mormon community. She has a degree from Yale and has written other books (non-mysteries). She has questions, as does Linda. But she takes great comfort and sustenance from her faith and community, as does Linda.

Harrison depicts the Mormon warts and flaws, along with the pluses. In a memorable quote from her interview with NPR, she said: “…I am treating Mormons as someone looking at Mormonism from an anthropological perspective almost and I’m not giving them a pass.” But her sympathies and support are for her Mormon community, make no mistake about that.

How does a woman whose practical and logical bent come to terms with a religion that promotes the idea that if a child dies, he or she will be reunited with and continue to be raised by the parents after they die. How does a feminist — which is what Linda sounds like — deal with the male-dominated administrative hierarchy of her church? First of all, she probably would never call herself a feminist and, secondly, she would probably tamp down any public expression of her negative opinions. Thirdly, she would be there to protect any woman in her ward in a difficult relationship. And, lastly, having faith means not having to have something tangible to point to.

So the stage is set for a thought-provoking and intriguing mystery.

A young neighbor woman suddenly disappears, leaving her husband and young daughter, a daughter she clearly adored. Linda’s radar pings into overdrive. Is the woman’s intractable, dogmatic husband a murderer? Another member’s husband is clearly overwrought. Is the wife the victim of abuse? Yet another member’s husband is dying. He clearly has a secret. Is that wife also the victim of abuse?

Linda knows that she is not seeing shadows instead of substance, but she thinks her interpretation may need adjustment. The story follows Linda’s thought processes and actions as she seeks to solve the mysteries and, perhaps, prevent a tragedy. The real journey, it turns out, is Linda’s. She must face some of her own hidden problems before she can help others. Harrison does a lovely job of turning Linda into a three-dimensional woman.

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