With ‘The Bishop’s Wife,’ Utah author turns from YA to a murder mystery in a Mormon community

First Published      Last Updated Jan 18 2017 05:41 pm

Utah Lit » Utah young-adult writer Mette Ivie Harrison finds an adult story set in a Draper LDS ward — and attracts national attention.

Mette Ivie Harrison's turn from writing princess-themed young-adult novels to writing "The Bishop's Wife," an adult murder mystery, is unusual in the publishing world.

The novel is further distinguished, according to Harrison's editor, by its setting in a Draper ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Usually we focus on geographical or ethnic cultures, so publishing a book set in a religious culture was an exciting new opportunity," says Juliet Grames, associate publisher of Soho Crime, a Random House imprint.

Local readers will recognize the novel's precipitating event, which Harrison drew from headlines reporting the 2009 disappearance of West Valley City mother Susan Cox Powell. Her husband, Josh Powell, claimed she had left the family. Her body never was found, and Powell never was charged with a crime. After an ongoing custody battle, he killed himself and the couple's two young sons in February 2012.

As its title suggests, the central character of Harrison's fictional story is Linda Wallheim, a bishop's wife and stay-at-home mother of five mostly grown boys who is kept busy baking cinnamon rolls and bread for members of the ward, or helping the Relief Society president organize a weekday class on domestic abuse. She becomes an amateur sleuth when Jared Helm, a young husband in the ward, comes to talk to the bishop after his wife has left him and the couple's 5-year-old daughter, Kelly.

When Harrison started writing the story, even she didn't know who the murderer would be. She was intrigued by the idea of exploring the idea of split loyalties within a Mormon ward — and even within a marriage — when a congregation member is suspected of a crime.

Linda, who is still silently grieving the death of her baby daughter, can't understand how a mother could leave a child. Yet the more she learns about the Helms' troubled marriage and Jared's right-wing views about patriarchy, the more she comes to suspect Jared Helm of murder. Her suspicions cause her to ignore her husband's counsel to stay out of the investigation.

As the story unfolds, Linda stumbles upon another mystery, this one decades old, yet the implications complicate the life and memories of her friend Anna, whose husband has recently died.

"The Bishop's Wife," which the country's independent booksellers voted as an IndieNext selection for January, is this month's selection of the Tribune's UtahLit online book club. Join the conversation at 12:15 p.m. Friday at sltrib.com. (See box about where to post or tweet comments.)

Harrison says her character's fatal flaw is her "pathological need to mother everyone in sight," which will get her into more trouble as the Mormon mystery series unfolds.

What sets apart the character, according to Harrison's editor, "is her unrelenting moral internal monologue," Grames says. "Her motivations are very particular to her character, and as a result the plots of these books unfold in a way that I feel is very fresh."

Ordinary people? Or a hit book? • "The Bishop's Wife" is an intriguing book in how the story might read differently for local and national audiences. It joins several recent thrillers, such as Andrew Hunt's "City of Saints" and Linda Sillitoe's "The Thieves of Summer," as murder mysteries that unfold against a Utah setting.

Some readers might be drawn to the curiosity factor of the Mormon community that provides the book's setting, as Janet Maslin wrote in a cultural feature about the book in The New York Times.

"It places heavy emphasis on domestic abuse and on the question of how dangerous fire-breathing extremists really are," Maslin wrote. "The man who inveighs against women as whores and sinners may or may not be anything worse than a crank. The man who speaks sanctimoniously of them may be much worse."

The main character in "The Bishop's Wife" is definitely opinionated, but at times she can read as either flat or distant on the page, while her actions getting involved in a potential murder investigation might be a stretch for some. She's part of the genre's tradition of amateur detectives, Harrison says.

Harrison doesn't think many mainstream Mormons will read the book, as the church-owned Deseret Book chain decided not to carry it.

Some Mormon readers have told her they appreciated how she wrote about religious characters without mocking or being an apologist for Mormon culture. Others say it feels like a "hit book."

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February Utah Lit: ‘The Bishop’s Wife’

Utah writer Mette Ivie Harrison has nationally published eight young-adult novels, including “Mira, Mirror” and “The Princess and the Hound,” and the adult memoir “Ironmom.” Her latest book, “The Bishop’s Wife,” a murder mystery, is set in Draper. The book will be the subject of our online book-club discussion.

When » Friday, 12:15 p.m.

Comments » Email ellenf@sltrib.com or jnpearce@sltrib.com or post on the Utah Lit Facebook page.

Join the conversation » Comment live during the online conversation by texting 801-609-8059 or using the Twitter hashtag #TribTalk.