“Fernie,” he said, knowing he should keep quiet, but unable to resist. “Are you happy here?”
“Every life has its joys and sorrows.”
“Stop talking like that for a moment, please.”
“Why, because I sound too much like you? Always dancing around issues? You’re a man with an opinion about everything who doesn’t know what he believes about anything.”
Author: Michael Wallace
Synopsis: When a wife of one of the elders of a fundamentalist Mormon polygamy cult is murdered, the prophet calls down another elder’s favored adult son to investigate the matter. Young Jacob Christianson obeys, bringing along his analytical nature, his skepticism, and his teenage sister Eliza. Their father wants to see the murder solved quickly, but he also wants both of them married by the end of the week.
Between trying to identify the killers, staying with two of the prime suspects, and attempting to avoid marriage to the scum at the bottom of the polygamist barrel, Jacob and Eliza must travel both to the stronghold of sin—Vegas—and to the Holy of Holies at the center of their church’s temple, all the while working to understand what they believe.
Notes: Everyone loves a good polygamist story. Insider tales of cult life, particularly where taboo sexual practices are involved, have an undeniable gift for raising human curiosity. But what separates Wallace’s thriller novel (the first in a series) from your average 60 Minutes story is that from the outset, Wallace generously gives his characters the presumption of personal honesty.
This was incredibly refreshing. No matter what the reader thinks of religious people, or of Mormons, or of tiny heretical offshoots of the Mormon church (and it should here be noted that the book differentiates clearly between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has not practiced polygamy in over a century, and the schismatic sect in the story), the characters get fair portrayal. They reason through their beliefs, ask fair questions and seek answers, and in some cases believe firmly and even beautifully. I’ve read a lot of fictional treatments of real religions, and rarely met one more well or kindly done.
The faith and its practices were obviously well researched, though I couldn’t say how much artistic license was taken. The author’s biography includes the phrase “raised in a small religious community in Utah,” but that could mean a lot of things. All I know is that while I’m hardly an expert, he never contradicted my limited knowledge of Mormonism or its offshoots.
The second interesting matter regarding this book is that it’s published by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint, possibly—though I’m not certain—after a run of self-publishing. Of the self-published work I’ve read or tried to read, this was by far the best. A good editor would have caught a very few grammatical issues and streamlined one or two parts of the story, but on the whole, the book was both readable and enjoyable. As far as maintaining character and worldbuilding from first line to finis, it beat a lot of traditionally published novels I’ve read.
Jacob and Eliza were both interesting, unfailingly sympathetic despite their commitment to ideals that the average American finds difficult to understand. Other personalities won some sympathy as well, and even most of the generally antagonistic characters, such as their father and brother, had likable sides.
For myself, I usually avoid thrillers because I don't like getting the creeps. The book does contain at least two psychopaths, along with some mildly graphic violence, but for its genre it wasn’t overly frightening. Readers may also wish to note that there is a near rape and some fairly openly described sexual consciousness.
It’s a quick read, and intriguing enough that this reader, at least, is not without interest in its sequels.
Recommendation: Read it for an easy, relaxing mystery and a generous glimpse into a lifestyle most of us modern Westerners can’t quite imagine.