Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Mo thriller vs. the post-Mo thriller: The Pictograph Murders by P. G. Karamesines and Wives and Sisters by Natalie R. Collins



I just got done reading two exciting murder mysteries, one by a practicing Mormon and one by a former Mormon.

I'm not really a murder mystery person, so I was really glad that neither one of these books followed the classic "whodunit?" formula where the reader is invited to see the entire novel as an exercise in trying to figure out who the culprit is right up until the end when the hero unveils the answer. In both of these novels it was clear fairly early on which character was the dangerous bad guy who needed to be brought to justice, and the mystery was essentially in unveiling the details of his crimes and situation. Both were stories of a strong, independent female character who is observed and stalked by a man who has developed a sinister interest in her.

The contrast that really took me by surprise, however, was that in the mystery by the apostate author, the hero was an exmormon/apostate and the villain was a devout Mormon, whereas in the mystery written by a Mormon, it turned out that the hero was a faithful Mormon and the villain was an atheist.

Hahahahahahahahahaha!!! Just kidding -- that didn't surprise me at all. In fact it was exactly what I was expecting before I cracked open either one of these two books.

P. G. Karamesines novel The Pictograph Murders has a little bit of an "outsider looking in" feel to it when discussing LDS culture. The author -- like her main character -- converted to Mormonism as an adult, and it shows in the perspective she describes. Not that her description of LDS culture is an inaccurate or invalid perspective -- far from it -- but rather she doesn't portray her character as having the homey, everyday familiarity with the trappings of Mormon culture that I've encountered in most of the LDS literature I've read.

Actually, there is very little Mormonism at all in Karamesines' novel. The main character describes converting to Mormonism as part of a rebirth following the end of an abusive relationship. But her philosophy and lifestyle aren't typically LDS. If the story weren't set in Mormon country, one could swap Mormonism for another religion here without losing much. The only scene I noticed that stood out as uniquely Mormon was the one where some characters are discussing whether some other people are LDS or not and admit to looking for garment lines as an indicator.

I caught myself wondering whether it would have made more sense if the main character had been an adherent of the Navajo religion since the author's description of the tribal folktales is so thoughtful and heartfelt. However, on reflection I feel like the fact that the story was told by a mainstream (anglo) perspective added to the magic of wondering if there isn't really something to the traditional tales. Even the bad guy character -- who is also anglo and seems from some statements to be an atheist -- is shown to have some belief in Native American mysticism.

Karamesines employs a fun device of writing parts of the story metaphorically as folk tales, having mythical figures stand in for the characters. The bad guy in particular seems to like to view himself as being like the coyote god. This technique is not merely entertaining, it also creates an atmosphere of bringing the past and present together surrounding the archaeological dig that the main characters are working on throughout the novel.

One part I found a little confusing was an extended dialog about moral relativism which begins on page 242. The bad guy sets up an interesting philosophical question by pointing out that people of the culture the archaeologists are studying would see the archaeological dig as grave desecration, no better than the thieving activities of the freelance "pot-hunters" who dig up artifacts to sell on the black market. Then this is compared to the situation of a coyote hunting a rabbit in which each has a different view of what is a positive outcome.

This scenario touches on a strong case to suggest that there exist conflicts in which it doesn't make sense to say that one party is in the right and the other is in the wrong. In the coyote/rabbit situation -- although one's sympathies are likely with the rabbit who is at risk of death -- in reality if the rabbits win every time the coyotes will starve to death, which is probably more painful than being eaten, and may even ultimately have negative consequences for the rabbit population. Karamesines' characters reply to this point by launching into a debate over the philosophy of "might makes right," but to be honest, it wasn't clear to me if the main bad guy was advocating a philosophy in which the strong deserve to be victorious, or whether they all accepted that "might makes right" is wrong and were merely arguing whether moral relativism inherently leads to a situation of "might makes right." To me this seems like an irrelevant argument. I have always thought the phrase "might makes right" is meant to be taken ironically to mean that the stronger party will win regardless of whether he is in the right for real.

That point aside, Karamesines creates a compelling tension between her hero and her villain. And as you already know if you follow her posts on the blog A Motley Vision, she has a great skill in capturing the emotion of appreciating being surrounded by nature.

Natalie R. Collins' novel Wives and Sisters is significantly darker and more gruesome. Her villain makes Karamesines' villain look like a charming and lovable guy. Seriously.

Collins' novel captures the constant overwhelming terror inherent in being stalked by someone who is delusional and dangerous. A few of the details of things her villain does to deliberately terrorize the protagonist were realistic to the point of compelling me to go back and review and compare with a real-life memoir that I don't normally like to talk that much about in a comedic column such as this one.

Unlike Karamesines' novel, Collins' novel is set in an atmosphere of constant and pervasive Mormon culture and theology. Indeed, in her story Mormonism is the true culprit, creating the madness at the root of the horrible crimes and abuses she describes. I know that faithful Mormons will vehemently object to this portrayal, however it is clear that Collins is describing Mormon culture from her own experience and from her own particular perspective as someone who grew up in Mormonism.

I enjoyed both of these books, and I would recommend them both with the small caveat that if you are a believing Mormon, you will almost certainly not like Natalie R. Collins' portrait of Mormonism.

8 comments:

Joseph's Left One said...

Dammit, I wish I had time to read. I'm barely making any headway on your book, and now you're suggesting even more.

C.L. Hanson said...

Sorry, I just like writing book reviews for some wacky reason... ;^)

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

I think the reason I liked Wives and Sisters is because it did remind me of some very serious aspects of Mormon culture. Most of the reality of it has been hidden (meat vs milk), which I find funny in a way... :-)

C.L. Hanson said...

True, and that's one of the things that makes her novel so fascinating and unique.

The principal charge that Collins levels against the LDS church in her novel is that the church actively covers up cases of abuse that are handled through church discipline, essentially allowing criminals access to new victims.

The church's lay ministry is absolutely unqualified to make a judgment such as "He's sufficiently repented of molesting that one kid so he's okay to teach primary now."

It is reasonable for the church hierarchy to concern itself with the perpetrator's spiritual redemption, but that's not sufficient, as we've seen in the corresponding sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church. In cases of criminal sexual abuse and/or domestic violence, the law needs to be brought in. Period. No matter how repentant and righteous the perpetrator appears to be.

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

My brother's father-in-law was a Stake president. And one case, they caught a peodiphile. Against the church policy, he turned this man over to the police. The guy was in his late 20's, a RM, and he went after young boys.

That was the first time I have ever heard of Mormon leadership turning criminals over to the secular authority.

C.L. Hanson said...

That's good that occasionally people do the right thing in spite of policy!!!

Rebecca said...

The bishop in my home ward - a really, really nice and caring man - specifically told me in one interview that if I told him anything about abuse he would have to go to the police. I was really lucky to always have great bishops growing up (wasn't ever abused, but I always felt safe with those bishops, and I knew they really did care about us).

C.L. Hanson said...

That's good to hear. I imagine a lot of the time the bishop is someone competent to handle such situations.