Last year I read Mette Ivie Harrison’s first adult novel The Bishop’s Wife, and loved it. A book put out by a major publisher featuring Mormon life and it’s not a total put down of Mormon life? Amazing! As soon as I heard she had Book #2 in progress I was ACHING to get my hands on it, and I was able to get a galley of His Right Hand. I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. I may have even stolen a few moments at work to read “just one more chapter” to get me through the day. (And when I tweeted that to the author, she tweeted back that Anne Perry had the same reaction!) (Also, while reading The Bishop’s Wife first will set up some plot points, this one does stand on its own.)
Now here’s the caveat. Harrison may be an active, Utah-living LDS mother of five, but she covers some pretty controversial topics that not all LDS readers may feel comfortable with. (Especially given recent events.) But that’s kind of the point. The Bishop’s Wife was based on an actual case of an LDS man murdering his wife. This book, His Right Hand, is focused around the murder of the second counselor in the bishopric… except it is quickly revealed that he was born female. And given what doctrine has been revealed thus far… things definitely get sticky. To put it mildly.
Harrison, to her credit, portrays a scope of reactions to this reveal, and taps into how a Mormon community might realistically handle it. Her protagonist Linda is sympathetic to what this man, a trusted friend of her bishop husband, must have been dealing with within the revealed doctrine and culture of Mormons. She takes a very Christ-centered approach of reaching out with love to this man and the family he left behind — and makes a point of referring to him with male pronouns. It’s difficult for members of Linda’s community, and no doubt for some readers, to understand this, but it’s a way of expressing compassion.
One major thing I love about Harrison’s books is the way she portrays Kurt Wallheim, Linda’s husband and bishop of their ward. I am very particular about how LDS bishops are portrayed in literature, and take it personally, because my father served as a bishop for a few years and I know to a certain extent how a bishop looks, acts, thinks, and the weight that is on his shoulders with that mantle. Kurt isn’t exactly like my father (nor should he be – bishops aren’t all the same), but my heart went out to this man as he endured his own struggles with his ward, his family, and himself. Bishops (in my experience) frequently get portrayed as egomanical, powerful men who take their priesthood responsibilities so seriously that they put their wife and their children’s needs aside. And/or they’re committing serious sins themselves. It’s refreshing and reassuring to me to not see that. I have respect for Kurt as a character, and it makes me happy to see Linda have such a support at home.
Harrison has also been open about her time away from the church when she was an atheist. I find this a benefit to her writing and to her characters to have them undergo some real soul-searching. Many books I have read previously by LDS authors with LDS characters tend to be a little heavy-handed with the total faith of the characters and easily resolved problems. (I have found this to be the case with other Christian inspiration titles not necessarily by LDS authors. It’s a genre I tend to not read for that reason.) Harrison’s characters do not have easy answers. They struggle. They may have to set aside some of their questions and let Heavenly Father hold on to them for awhile. Not only does it make for a way to keep the characters evolving as Harrison produces this series, but it feels much more real to me.
So if you’re looking for a crime novel with characters you will recognize from your own ward, with protagonists who go through faith transitions, and still have an active LDS framework, I highly suggest you give Harrison’s books a try. This one will likely make you uncomfortable in places, and give you a number of things to ponder, but I found it a rewarding experience.