[Detective Art Ovesen is trying to find evidence in a case concerning polygamist families]
I spent the rest of that hot July morning driving to the places that [polygamist prophet and patriarch] LeGrand Johnston visited on his daily outings. I went to bungalows and apartment buildings. I stopped off at a Sears and Roebuck kit house on a sparsely inhabited rural road by the foothills of the Oquirrh Mountains and then journeyed to the opposite side of the valley, to a Tudor mansion south of the University of Utah.
I knocked on doors, lots of doors. They all began to blend together in my mind. The intrepid few who actually bothered opening the doors were women. All of them looked the same, with their gravity-defying hairdos done up in buns or braids, and stark black puff-sleeved dress extending to the wrists and ankles, which I assumed was reserved for mourning (although when I asked one if that’s what it was for, she would neither confirm or deny it.) I found the women to be either morose or angry. I asked a lot of questions. They furnished terse replies, shedding no new light on anything, and each one referred me to her attorney.
[Bonus extract and picture – used just because it fitted so well:]
The telephone on my desk rang…Myron nodded and came over to my desk. “Anti-Polygamy Squad, Detective Adler here.” He listened for several seconds. “Uh-Huh.” He went silent again. “Uh-Huh. Okay. Thank you for telling me.”
He placed the receiver in the cradle and set the telephone on the desk. Gazing at me from behind those thick glasses, he hesitated to tell me what he’d just heard.
commentary: I came to this book via my friend Bill Selnes, who reviewed it over at his Mysteries and More blog. Although the story is entirely set in the USA – in fact entirely set in the state of Utah -the author lives in Canada and the book has been shortlisted for the 2016 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Crime Fiction Novel.
The subject matter fascinated me: it is a historical novel dealing with polygamy in Utah in 1934 – the protagonist is a Mormon policeman trying to tackle the problem of illegal multiple marriages. He gets caught up in a murder case…
Polygamy had been outlawed by the Mormon church, and by the state, for many years (this was necessary to achieve statehood) but then – as now – the practice continued in a (fairly) quiet way, and not a great deal was done about it. Any polygamist communities were most definitely not part of the respectable Church of the Latter Day Saints.
When I visited Utah I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen, and I still think that. Of all the places I have ever visited, it is the one I would most like to go back to. It is startling and dramatic, yet also peaceful and soothing to the soul. The people are most friendly and welcoming, and yet you are aware that tucked away there are small groups of polygamists, and that their customs and habits can be fairly horrible: this is not just a case of ‘men with a lot of women’. There is, unarguably, child abuse, early and forced marriages, and abandonment – banishment - of young males. This apparently was the same in the 1930s as now.
The book is an interesting and informative look at life back then, with a hero, a solid crime to solve, and a clear look at the issues of the day. I like that the first person narrator, Art Oveson, is a good-hearted, happily married family man, with strong principles almost to the point of naivete. He makes a change from all those corrupt alcoholic policemen we all read about… Although he can be quite thuggish and unpleasant: at one point his boss says ‘you were done in by your pigheaded impulsiveness’ – I’m guessing the reader is meant to disagree, but I thought it was fair comment.
Near the beginning Oveson is following the head of a breakaway sect, very much believed to be a polygamist. This man goes to his church late at night, and Oveson stakes him out there, sitting in his car outside. While he is watching, a truck draws up, two people jump out, rush into the church, shoot the prophet and then take off. Oveson apparently just sits in his car till this is all over. No-one comments on this at any point, though you’d think it would be embarrassing to be watching as your target is murdered. He’d be sacked in most crime books.
But things get better from there on, and the investigation is very compelling, and the underlying issues carefully laid out.
My one issue with the book is that although very much researched (down to the times that radio programmes are on) there seem to be some weird anachronisms – does a character actually say ‘imma going to..’? Someone uses a ‘bag of frozen peas’ to ease a banged head, a car is put into ‘park’ – these things didn’t seem very likely in 1934?
But still, overall a very entertaining book.
The beautiful picture at the top is from the NYPL, and was taken by Dorothea Lange in the 1930s. This is the description:
Mary Ann Savage was a faithful Mormon all her life. She was a plural wife. She was a pioneer. She crossed the plains in 1856 with her family when she was six years old. Her mother pushed her little children across plain and desert in a hand-cart.She lived from 1849 to 1936.
The second picture, from the Library of Congress , shows a mining executive in Utah a few years after the time of the book: I really wanted to use it because it looked so right.