21 May / The Bishop’s Wife series by Mette Ivie Harrison + Author Interview [in The Booklist Reader]
Talking Mormon Murder Mysteries with Mette Ivie Harrison
Trust me: Linda Wallheim is a sleuth like no other. She’s a devout Mormon, for starters, and the wife of a respected Utah ward bishop. And yet her sense of justice gets her into plenty of trouble, especially in a community so dominated by men-centric rules. She slaps an aging bully who calls his 5-year-old granddaughter a whore! She defends a dead transgender man from unforgiving judgment! She confronts enough corpses that her bewildered husband has a refrain: “How does this always happen to you?”
As the author of four Linda Wallheim installments thus far – The Bishop’s Wife, His Right Hand, For Time and All Eternities, and Not of This Fold (forthcoming in November) – of 11 planned in total, Mette Ivie Harrison is perhaps even more intriguing than her thrilling hero. A practicing Mormon, Harrison openly discusses her spiritual struggles on her website’s “Mormon Page.” A Princeton PhD who completed a Masters by age 19, a former professor who’s a Huffington Post blogger, a nationally-ranked triathlete, and a mother of five, Harrison thoughtfully examines and challenges dogma, doctrine, and even more dead bodies.
How did you transition from writing award-winning YA fantasy to adult murder mysteries?
[Following] several years of depression after the death of my daughter in 2005, I kept writing YA, but I struggled to write it the “right way,” and eventually decided my career was over. I talked to my agent and asked if he had any suggestions. He said, “Whatever you do, don’t write that,” pointing to my idea for The Bishop’s Wife [TBW] on a list I’d made of possible projects. It may sound like that was a terrible thing to say, but it was what I desperately needed to hear.
I’d been trying so hard to write books that other people wanted to read. I’d lost my way in the depression. [My agent] Barry Goldblatt telling me not to write TBW because “no one will ever want to read that” (about Mormons, I think is what he meant) gave me permission to write a book I believed in. Mormon publishing is very strong here in Utah, with a lot of rules about writing to the Mormon audience who expect to be catered to. This book was definitely not that. It pushed certain buttons. And yet it wasn’t an ex-Mormon story, either. It was something in-between. Barry was probably right, that it would have been impossible to sell, except that I’d already met [my editor] Juliet Grames, and she had specifically told me she was looking for a Mormon mystery if I ever wanted to write one – with a woman as the sleuth.
I think the response to TBW was so strong that I feel confident to keep writing the series for a long time into the future, which I’m excited about doing. But it will never be the only thing I’m working on. It was just the book I needed to write at that moment in my life. I should say that Barry, after he read TBW, said, “I didn’t know you could write about Mormons like that.”
Could it be that yours is the only Mormon murder series on shelves? Where did the original inspiration come from?
I think there has been one other series in the ’70s. A friend, Andrew Hunt, is working on a historical Mormon mystery series that hasn’t gotten as much press. Michael Wallace, another friend, is working on a series set within the FLDS [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints], which is also very good. But I think mine is the big contemporary series out there.
The original inspiration was the Josh and Susan Powell case. [Utah resident Susan disappeared in 2009 and husband Josh was named a person of interest but never charged.] I wanted to start with a similar premise and twist it my own way. Specifically, I wanted to tell a story about the ways in which I think Mormon patriarchy affects the way crimes are investigated and the way that Mormon men who are abusers are sometimes perceived within the community. But I also wanted to surprise readers, so I made sure there were lots of twists.
You’ve tackled numerous challenging issues most readers wouldn’t associate with Mormons: domestic violence, gender inequity, LGBTQIA members. What prompted such daring narrative directions?
I wrote TBW in early 2012, and it didn’t come out until the end of 2014. I wrote several other books in the series (including His Right Hand and For Time and All Eternities) before TBW was published. I talked to my editor Juliet Grames on a long hike up to Timpanogos Cave, and she helped me tease out themes in each book and see what order they should go in. She’s also really helped me to be more flexible when the actual news meant that we had to shift some things around.
All my books have had hints of these same themes in them. I just wasn’t as bold in them. If you look back at my YA fantasies, you’ll see there’s a lot of talk about secrets that can’t be told (The Princess and the Hound), about abuse (Mira, Mirror), and about LGBT issues (The Rose Throne). [With TBW], I stopped wanting to cloak my message.
Your series’ body count is certainly growing! How do you approach your murderous research?
I knew from the beginning I was going to have to deal with the Jessica Fletcher [Murder, She Wrote] problem, that is, that you can’t have that many murders in the same town. So I’m trying to move Linda to other towns via her connections in her own ward. She gets a reputation as a meddler and a nosy busy-body who makes the police do things, which is helpful in certain murderous circumstances. But my focus is always on character development, and I have no interest in weird, flashy kinds of murder. I’m probably always going to stick with guns, knives, and strangling.
Beyond her peripatetic future, what other plans do you have for our dear Bishop’s Wife?
I have 11 books planned out right now and a handful of short stories that might be collected. I’m going to be flexible and let the series grow into the future. I do have a specific arc I’ve planned for poor Linda and poor [bishop husband] Kurt. I also thought that I’d keep Kurt in as bishop for five years (the standard in Mormonism) and that each book would be set in the chronological year it’s published, but that’s not the way it’s turning out now. I’ve had to do the Robert Parker strategy of just fudging the year so that Linda and her kids don’t age too fast, and not mentioning what specific election is happening in the current book, so as not to date it too badly.
And since you mentioned the series is “not the only thing I’m working on,” what else is can eager readers expect?
Well, I have some books targeted to the Mormon audience, including The Book of Laman and its follow-up, The Book of Abish, and a weird paranormal mystery series set in an alternate present in which Mormons live side by side with homo vampirus, another branch on the human family tree like Neanderthals.
I was also diagnosed last year with autism, which has thrown me for a loop, and I’m working through it (as a writer does) with some books, including a YA mystery with an autistic, female Sherlock Holmes at a fancy prep school in Princeton, New Jersey.