by Roger Johns
I really enjoyed reading Blessed Be the Wicked. Books that promise to take me on a journey into a place, and a culture that I’m not familiar with certainly have the power to intrigue, and this one definitely delivered on that promise. The author of this tale well-told is D. A. Bartley, a member of Daughters of Utah Pioneers who traces her family history back to the earliest days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Even though she spent much of her childhood in Utah, she has also lived in Scotland, Germany, France and Russia, and now lives in New York. D. A. has worked as an attorney and an academic, but her life-long love of mysteries finally lured her into the fold of crime fiction writers, and we should all be glad of that.
This book opens with a stunning crime. A prominent businessman is found dead in the closet of a brand new McMansion in Pleasant View, Utah – his throat slit. It might be murder. It might be suicide. Whatever happened, nearly everyone in the Mormon-dominated local police department is uneasy because the scene is steeped in the trappings of a controversial ritual once practiced by some members of the Latter-day Saints. Everyone agrees that they must get to the bottom of the death, but the powers that be, fearful the truth will portray the Church in an ugly light, want the investigation kept low-key and wrapped up fast.
Abish Taylor, a prodigal daughter who left Utah, left the Church, and distanced herself from her family whose roots extend back to the early days of the LDS, has recently returned from the big city to become the sole detective on Pleasant View’s tiny police force. From the start, her quest for the truth puts her at odds with her superiors, her father (a prominent Mormon scholar), and high-ranking members of the LDS hierarchy.
In Blessed Be the Wicked, the setting and the investigation are inseparable elements of a story that gives the reader a fascinating view into LDS history and practices, how it touches and shapes the lives of contemporary members, and how it fits into the secular society that surrounds it. All of the characters, even the secondary ones, are rendered with such clarity and authenticity that it’s easy to be drawn into their world and easy to understand the power that social and religious forces bring to bear on individuals and groups.
Tension runs high between the needs of the investigation and the wants of the community and keeps the pages turning. More than once, Detective Abish Taylor’s fierce devotion to principle made me think of the against-the-odds and against-the-prevailing-norms battles fought by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill. This is a really well-done debut mystery, and I’m hoping it’s only the first of many encounters with Detective Abish Taylor. She’s complex, determined, and very human. And even though her investigation leads her into some rather dark places, this story has some light-hearted and tender moments that make the book very absorbing. Bartley’s attention to detail and her obviously deep knowledge of her subject matter make Blessed Be the Wicked nearly impossible to put down.
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