Former Utahn explores the mysterious heart of 'City of Saints'
The story of the unsolved murder of Dorothy Dexter Moormeister, a rich Salt Lake City doctor's wife and social gadfly, has been intriguing reporters and readers for more than 80 years.
As the murder was breathlessly reported by the Associated Press in The New York Times on Feb. 22, 1930:
"Crushed repeatedly beneath the wheels of her own automobile after she had been slain on a lonely country road near here, the body of Mrs. Dorothy Moormeister, wife of a Salt Lake physician, was found early today by a smelter worker returning from his night shift."
Now the case with the murdered woman transformed into the fictional character of Helen Kent Pfalzgraf, a mysterious wannabe actress provides the backdrop of City of Saints, a mystery by Andrew Hunt. Hunt, who was raised in Salt Lake City and received his Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 1997, is a history professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. (His father, E.K. Hunt, was an economics professor at five universities, including the U.)
Hunt, who has written nonfiction books about Vietnam veterans and the Chicago Seven revolutionary David Dellinger, stumbled upon reports of the Moormeister murder in newspaper archives. He was intrigued by the mystery surrounding the unsolved case.
During the murder investigation, detectives apparently learned that the 32-year-old Mrs. Moormeister had liaisons with multiple men, including a Utah mining promoter and a Persian prince, and was possibly seeking a divorce, while her respected husband, who performed abortions for rich women, looked the other way.
Hunt was surprised that he hadn't heard more about the Moormeister case in the years he lived and studied in Salt Lake City. "The appeal of that case, how many suspects there were, how it remained unsolved, how many twists and turns over a couple of months all of that was very appealing for a would-be mystery writer," Hunt said.
After earning tenure from his university, he felt freed up to take on writing projects outside his field. He plunged into writing a historical novel about the Moormeister murder but kept getting stumped by dead ends. "I couldn't see the thing being a true crime story," the writer said, as the facts of the case left too many unanswered questions.
After all, he faced a big, complicated narrative problem: This was a cold case, and 82 years later, all the principals were dead.
Hunt turned to fiction, resurrecting a character he had created previously: Art Oveson, a naive young Mormon lawman. Hunt had invented Oveson for an earlier novel that he had set aside. In City of Saints, he went on to thicken the plot by vilifying Oveson's boss, an on-the-take sheriff.
"I wanted Art to reflect the finest qualities in the best people I knew who were LDS," Hunt said. "I also wanted to start him young in his career, so over time he could evolve as a character and become more complicated."
From the Moormeister case, Hunt kept key details, like the date of the murder and the fact that the woman's bloody body had been run over multiple times by her own car, a 1929 Cadillac, before being discovered on Pole Line Road, near 2700 West and 3500 South in what is now West Valley City.
For the historian, the setting and time period were irresistible. In 1930, Salt Lake City was still anchored by its Mormon pioneer roots while moving toward modernity. "Salt Lake City was straddling these two different periods" between the 19th and 20th centuries, Hunt said. "That interested me the most, because you could see the tensions. If you started to read between the lines, dig deeply, there was a lot of stuff going on underneath the radar."
City of Saints, in manuscript, won the 2011 Tony Hillerman prize, which includes $10,000 and publication by St. Martin's Press.
Local readers are curious about a murder mystery based in Salt Lake City, said Anne Holman, of The King's English Bookshop, as well as the story's historically accurate details, such as Oveson regularly visiting the iconic Keeley's Ice Cream shop on Main Street, while the sheriff's deputy interviews Dr. Pfalzgraf in his office in the Brooks Arcade building on State Street.
The setting also serves to distinguish the mystery nationally, said Hunt's New York City-based agent, Steve Ross. "I think Salt Lake City is a perennial subject of interest to readers because it's such an anomaly, so seemingly distinct from other American cities and yet in other ways so similar," Ross said.
Few of the scores of murder mysteries published annually are based upon historical events, which can add a level of intrigue for readers. Ross went on to praise the quality of Hunt's writing, its authoritative plot structure, vivid characterizations and historical veracity.
Perhaps most significant, however, is what Ross terms the novel's "Blue Velvet" factor. "Just like in David Lynch's film," Ross said, "City of Saints takes the reader into the heart of what seems like a quintessentially clean, law-abiding, Middle-American city and drills deeper, down into the dark murk and mud that underlies the superficial surface."
A 'City of Saints' homecoming
P Andrew Hunt, a historian-turned-fiction writer, will read from his newly released City of Saints, which won the 2011 Tony Hillerman prize for best first mystery novel. The story is set in Salt Lake City in 1930.
When • Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where • The King's English Bookshop. 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City; 801-484-9100
Tickets • Free