- Reviewed by Molly Odintz
Mette Ivie Harrison, Mormon, mother, and mystery novelist, burst onto the crime scene in January 2015 with her thoughtful and intense crime fiction debut, The Bishop’s Wife. The novel explores the power, privilege, and pitfalls of LDS womanhood.
Harrison’s protagonist, Linda Wallheim, a married mother of four living in Utah, aids her husband Kurt in providing religious guidance and comfort to her community. Her husband relies on Linda to reach out to those women in their congregation in need. When one of their number disappears, suspects include much of their insular community, and Linda goes on the hunt for the missing woman.
Linda’s quiet strength and purpose serve as a model of a Mormon feminist; her interior dialogue is rich, steeped in biblical imagery, yet firmly grounded in the modern world. Harrison takes a clear-eyed approach to the community she writes about, demonstrating both its dangers and attractions.
Her second novel, His Right Hand, sets aside her previous novel’s focus on violence against women in favor of an exploration of gender identity and the struggle for LGBT acceptance in the Mormon community. Linda Wallheim reappears as Harrison’s protagonist, this time with as much to say about the constraints of male gender roles within the church as female ones. As the novel begins, Linda and Kurt witness tension between a married couple, Carl and Emma Ashby. Linda suspects abuse. Soon after, Carl’s dead body turns up in the church, and police reveal that Carl Ashby was transgender. Linda feels drawn to investigate the murder. Her son’s struggle to come out as gay brings memories of her own past to the surface, adding emotional intensity to Linda’s search.
Linda’s quest to hunt down a potentially bigoted murderer serves as a stand-in for the very real struggle in the Mormon church today over how to overcome homophobia and accept and retain LGBT members. Harrison peppers her text with passionate pleas for tolerance, supported by biblical quotes from the Old Testament up through the Book of Mormon. She ends the book with a list of sources and resources to inspire further advocacy within her community for GLBT rights. Her appendix underscores her use of the genre to address real and pressing issues within her community.
Some may be tempted to describe Harrison’s subject matter and themes as strictly relevant to the Mormon sphere, yet her critique of gender roles and attitudes reaches well beyond the church of Latter Day Saints. Carl and Emma Ashby, in their exaggerated adherence to strictly gendered behavior, serve as a model to all of us: we must closely examine our actions and determine which come from imposed gender norms and which come from ourselves. Linda and Kurt Wallheim, while mostly embracing their traditional gender roles, also demonstrate a loving flexibility and playfulness with their assigned duties. More importantly, the Wallheims show an ability to accept those they love, regardless of perceived difference.
Mette Ivie Harrison, in His Right Hand, has created a masterpiece of socially relevant genre fiction. Her voice is one of the most unique in the genre, and I cannot wait to see what subject she will address next.