FEBRUARY 5, 2015
THE PREMISE of The Bishop’s Wife, by Mette Ivie Harrison, is a compelling one: Linda Wallheim, a Mormon mother with four grown sons and one nearly out of high school, is married to an accountant who has recently been named the ward’s bishop. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the bishop is chosen from among laypeople to serve as a ward’s spiritual leader, counselor, and judge. This is a deeply paternal role, which brings the bishop into close daily contact with his parishioners. Linda is a good Mormon, but she is more than a little ambivalent about her new role as bishop’s wife. She spends her days tending to her husband’s flock by volunteering for church-sponsored events, providing counsel, or visiting with those in the community who are having a difficult time. With her youngest son nearly out of the house, Linda realizes she has very few friends and fewer hobbies. Basically, she is bored out of her mind.
Then a young female parishioner, Carrie Helm, goes missing, leaving behind a defensive, cagey husband and a five-year-old daughter. Linda is intrigued: What happened to Carrie? Did she run away? Is she alive or dead? Is the husband responsible? Or is the husband’s father, a strict Mormon who believes women should be subservient to men in the church and at home, behind Carrie’s disappearance?
A second mystery, meanwhile, falls into Linda’s lap like an anvil. After she befriends Anna Torstensen, a middle-aged woman caring for her dying husband, Linda learns that Anna’s husband had a first wife who died under mysterious circumstances that were never investigated. Linda doesn’t really investigate either the Helm or the Torstensen disappearance at first, at least not until more than halfway through the book. Not even a bloody hammer and a torn dress can get our would-be sleuth moving. Linda’s humanity, guilt, faith, and instinctive nosiness have bumped up against her well-worn identity as wife, mother, and church leader.
I was a fifty-four-year-old woman, a stay-at-home mother of five boys, and a bishop’s wife. I was not a detective. I was not a prophet. I didn’t know what I was doing here. And it was time for me to give up the idea that I had some special connection to Carrie Helm, or to any other woman in the ward.
She admits that she is reluctant to become further involved with the cases, because she does not feel called by God to investigate. She’s meddling out of an entirely human impulse born out of her own sense of obligation to the women in her ward. Linda promises her husband that she will stop asking questions and focus on her job “making bread, going on visits with the bishop, and changing minds slowly.” Her hesitation may be best understood as the calm that comes just before a person’s entire life changes.
In the hands of a more capable crime novelist, Linda’s slow transition from bishop’s wife to amateur investigator could be used to great effect to make the reader root for the underdog protagonist. Instead, Harrison gives over pages and pages of the novel, which could have been used for character development, to exposition. Some of the topics she spells out — those to do with Mormon doctrine and the religion’s culture, for example — are interesting, educational, and help ground the uninitiated. In other sections, however, Harrison tells us every little thing Linda feels, thinks, does. It is all explained for the reader and, for good measure, it is explained again. For example, there’s this passage where Linda explores her mid-life ennui:
I hadn’t had a job since I was pregnant with my oldest son, and I kept myself busy. But lately, I had begun to wonder if I ought to be contributing to the world as more than a wife and mother. […] [W]ith Samuel about to leave home, I would have more time on my hands.
Or in this section where Harrison explains why Linda would go to Anna Torstensen’s house:
On Monday morning when he went into his accounting office, Kurt put a note up on the fridge. It said Anna Torstensen.
I knew what it meant. He was worried about Anna Torstensen, possibly because of thoughts that had come to him during prayer the night before, possibly because of something mentioned in all the church meetings he had gone to on Sunday. He wasn’t allowed to tell me why, and he was at work all day, but he was hoping I might have a chance to go see her.
After this, the reader gets still more exposition about the fridge notes. We learn that sometimes Linda’s husband writes a single name on the note, other times he writes several names, and yet other times he goes weeks without leaving names on the fridge, and on and on. On the one hand, these paragraphs show how strongly the bishop relies on Linda and how deeply involved Linda must be in the lives of the ward members. On the other, the reader can’t help but think: We get it. Linda’s husband tells her whom to visit by leaving a name on a Post-it.
It isn’t clear whether this level of exposition is a byproduct of Harrison’s background as a young adult novelist or not — although surely even the youngest reader can pick up on some level of nuance. Regardless, any author who decides to transition from penning young adult fantasy novels to adult detective fiction is audacious, and the attempt should be lauded even if the execution isn’t a total success; it is the rare writer who can complete this transition without any sign of struggle. Unfortunately, in this case Harrison’s greenness shows through too often, and the novel’s potential is never realized.
The point of a detective novel, after all, is for a mystery to be investigated, picked apart, and solved. Successful mysteries rely on unknowns, tension, and suspense. For example, in one section, Linda is told that a suspect is a good gardener. Soon after, Linda learns the suspect is excessively attached to his garden, and that he won’t travel because of it. When a dead body is found in the garden, the reader can’t help but suspect the obsessive gardener. There can’t be much suspense or tension when everything is so carefully explained. With so much exposition, there is little satisfaction when the final mystery is solved.
Harrison is a well-educated woman with a doctorate in German literature from Princeton, as well as a practicing Mormon, so it isn’t surprising that she is preoccupied with the machinations of gender and power within the modern Mormon Church. She uses her characters to explore both the patriarchal and hierarchal structure of the church. Are female members of the church inherently in danger, because of the church’s structure and culture? Through Linda’s internal monologue, Harrison repeatedly ponders these legitimate, important themes, though with little subtlety.
But sometimes the explanation was that men took advantage of the power they had over their wives, in society and in the church. Even the kindest men in the church had no idea of the many ways in which they made their wives and daughters into lesser persons than their sons and fellow male church members. […] But that had to change. I had to change first, and make the church and culture change around me.
And with that, any chance at a fascinating investigation of faith, religion, power, and gender by an author inside a community is missed, because we know where she stands on all of it.
In the end, this whodunit fails because, like her heroine, the author seems ambivalent about her transition. Where the average young adult novel might benefit from full explanation, a mystery, like the one attempted here, will certainly suffer in underdeveloped pacing and loose structure. Perhaps in trying to tell the tale of a middle-aged woman undergoing a profound personal change, while laying out two discrete mysteries, Harrison piled on too much for one novel. A single mystery might have been story enough. In the next volume, let’s hope the bishop’s wife takes a break from hand-wringing and constant explanation and is transformed into the pushy, unapologetic snoop her ward members need.