Tuesday, 9 August 2016

A Killing in Zion by Andrew Hunt

 
published 2015
 
 
 
Killing in Zion
 

[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:]


 
Killing in Zion 2

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.

























22 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. It might be more to your taste than you think - but you do have enough books already...

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  2. I remember Bill's review of this one, Moira. It does sound interesting. Like you, I'd probably notice the anachronisms, but the plot sounds fascinating. And I have to say, I like historical books like that where the research is carefully done.

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    1. Yes, I was glad Bill directed my attention to this one. I know I am over-fussy about anachronisms, and many people don't mind - but I think you and I are soulmates on this, and on editing generally.

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  3. Sounds like an interesting book. I too find Utah and incredibly beautiful state, have visited it a number of times as we have relatives there, some Mormon.

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    1. A very interesting book, yes. Lucky you to have a reason to visit Utah...

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  4. I'd have been Googling like mad to find out if those things you thought were anachronistic really were right for the period. Here's proof that two of them are perfectly fine for 1934. Frozen food was in wide use by 1929 when Birdseye Frozen Food Co was created. "Imma going to" is a regionalism that dates back to the 19th century, especially in US south and rural areas from New England to the mountains of the west. American regionalisms and dialects have been one of my hobbies for decades so don't dare question me. ;^) Probably the car being put in park is the only thing off that you mentioned. Automatic transmissions weren't widespread until the mid 1940s.

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    1. Of course I checked! The problem is that peas weren't in bags, they were in cardboard boxes (presumably plastic bags were not really an option?), and not THAT widespread in 1934 according to my sources. Everywhere I looked said 'Imma' was a recent innovation, not traced back before the 1960s, I will look again. I read there were other anachronisms in the book concerning the Mormon families, but I don't know that for myself.

      Did you see, btw, that I did get that Nero Wolfe you reviewed recently? On the blog last week (can't do a link easily where I am).

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  5. This does sound fascinating. Frozen peas so soon! I had no idea.

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    1. Yes, reading the story of frozen foods was unexpectedly interesting - not the topic you want to bring up to make friends at parties, but still... Of course the next question is when people actually had fridges and freezers in great numbers. When I was young you bought frozen food more or less on the day you were going to use it, there was only a tiny compartment to store it in.

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  6. Moira: Thanks for the kind mention. I am glad you enjoyed the book.

    I do not notice anachronisms very often.

    The photo is perfect. She would have been a plural wife when Utah outlawed polygamy. I wonder what she thought of the change.

    It is a good book with a unique theme involving polygamy.


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    1. Thanks, and thanks for the tipoff. Truly a fascinating topic. I'm glad you liked the pictures - I was very pleased with myself for finding something authentic. What a life Mary Ann Savage must have led..

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    2. Moira: I took a further look online about Mary Ann Savage. Several sources confirm that she was married to Levi Savage becoming his third wife when she was either 17 or 19 in the later 1860's.

      What is startling is that Levi was her stepfather. He had married her mother about 10 years before he married Mary Ann.

      His second wife was Mary Ann's younger, by two years, sister Adelaide.

      Your photo is even more apt than I realized. She is an example of the outrages of plural marriage almost 70 years before A Killing in Zion was set and almost 150 years from today.

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    3. Oh my goodness, that's extraordinary. That world, and those lives, are unimaginable.

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  7. This book does sound very interesting. Probably not an addition to the mounds of books right now, but someday. The images are perfect.

    I am like Bill, don't really notice anachronisms and if I do, they go right by. I am more likely to notice misuses of words, which often may be my problem more than the authors, or typos. Some of those bothered me in See Also Deception that I just finished, but a few editorial errors I forgive.

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    1. You might come across the book somewhere Tracy, in which case I do recommend it. We all have our different tripping points in books don't we? I'm sure there are other mistakes that go right past me.

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  8. I'd like to read this book, but the abuses among the polygamists continue, with abuse of women and girls and mistreatment of young men and boys, including forced labor, then being cast out alone.

    Several years ago, the government went into a large compound of polygamists, taking the children and women -- but it backfired because that kind of intervention was too severe. Some women and children didn't return; most did.

    Some women who fled these sects have written books exposing their reality and were on TV at the time of that government action. Their stories were harrowing about abuse.

    And then the child marriages, which are really "sanctified" rape.

    I don't know why the government allows this to go on. Also, there is child labor and the children don't go to school. A lot came out about this at the time the media was covering the government's intervention.

    And then there are the lost boys who are just dumped on a road as they are competition for the older men seeking young women and girls as more wives. Many end up with substance abuse problems.

    And a sheriff told of how sad it is to have teen-age boys in his office who are forcibly separated from their mothers and have nowhere to go. Fortunately, some good people have set up shelters for these boys.

    But this whole situation is very upsetting and I don't know if I can read the book. why these sects are allowed to do what they do to women, girls and boys is beyond me.

    If I could stoma

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    1. I know it's a subject you feel strongly about, Kathy, and I share your views. The whole situation is appalling, and so difficult to imagine - how do the mothers stand by while their daughters are married off and their sons cast off? It is hard to understand, even given their subjection.

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  9. Is it Stockholm Syndrome (so-called) on the part of the women, brainwashing? They don't have the self-confidence to leave nor can they think of another way to live. Also, they are taught that the outside world is "dangerous." So, they're afraid of it.

    At around the time of the government's action, it came out that two men committed suicide because their wives and children were taken away from them by male authorities who wanted the women as wives. Heartbreaking.

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    1. Oh dear, there is nothing good about this story is there? We don't get that many stories about the polygamists in the UK, I suppose it's always the particularly bad ones. So depressing. A web of sadness, and one that's very difficult to get out of.

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  10. For the women and girls, yes, very hard to get out of. If one is taught to fear the outside world and one needs "protection," and also women have no options or people whom they trust to help them, they're stuck.

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