With its death oaths and blood atonement, Mormon cultural history provides plenty of raw material for a murder mystery. Remember how Brigham Young decreed death on the spot for interracial mixing of seed? Did you ever wonder what would happen if someone decided to carry that out?
If so, look no further than Latayne Scott's Latter-Day Cipher. It's an exciting mystery as well as an intriguing trip through Mormonism's dark history. As a fan of portraits of different cultures, I particularly liked how the author contrasts Utah Mormon culture with the Tennessee Christian heritage of some of the characters. The book also introduced me to a fun bit of Mormon history trivia (that I'm surprised I'd never heard of before, given my fondness for invented languages): the Deseret Alphabet.
This book is probably the most "anti-Mormon" work of fiction I've ever read, aside from A Study in Scarlet. I'm a little wary about making a statement like that because I think that the "anti-Mormon" label is extremely problematic, especially applied to literature (see It’s Time to Play: Anti-Mormon… Or Not?). However, in this case, the author has explicitly compared the work to The Jungle and Uncle Tom's Cabin (in terms of using fiction to illustrate the dangers of Mormonism), so I think it makes sense to analyze the author's criticisms of Mormonism. I'll tell you my reactions, and please feel free to re-analyze my analysis. ;^)
The book's central point about Mormonism is that the bad parts of Mormonism's past are smoothed over, but are still there, right under the surface. The author's key metaphor is that of a the gas fumes that still linger around the site of a plane crash that took place in the distant past. In Mormon terms, this corresponds to doctrines that are simply deleted from one edition of a manual to the next (see, for example this post on the new Gospel Principles).
This is a very real problem within Mormonism, which I think the author illustrates well: When a Mormon leader teaches doctrine X, and then doctrine X is not mentioned (neither confirmed nor disavowed) in General Conference or any official LDS church publication for several decades, that creates a situation where some Mormons are still actively teaching X as doctrine while other Mormons claim that it's a pernicious lie to suggest that Mormons believe X. And both groups -- those that believe X and those that think essentially no Mormons believe/teach X -- are innocently honest and sincere in their (incompatible) beliefs. We've discussed this problem at MSP in the post Why not denounce Brigham Young’s racist statements?
To use the popular metaphor, defining Mormon doctrine is like nailing jello to a wall. No matter what you say about Mormonism on the Internet, some Mormon will come by and say "That's not true!" And, while each individual Mormon commenter is sincerely trying to clarify the given point of doctrine, the aggregate of all of these conflicting claims is really, really, really annoying for an outsider (or even an insider) who is sincerely trying to figure out what Mormons believe.
The lingering doctrine that Latayne Scott dwells on most is blood atonement. Some major plot elements hinge on the idea that some Mormons might feel they need to be bloodily killed to atone for their sins. For example, a Mormon who sinned by drinking and driving, and accidentally killed someone as a result, might believe that he has to atone for that sin with his own blood in order to be saved. As someone who was raised Mormon, I find this incredibly bizarre and far-fetched. Most modern mainstream Mormons have never heard of "blood atonement", much less believe in it. And when you read about blood atonement from the days in which it was practiced, it seems a lot more like a threat to frighten "apostates", not something people would ever think they require themselves. I would suspect that some people who carried out the "blood atonement" felt they were doing their victims a favor (in accordance with Brigham Young's famous sermon on it, immortalized in the Journal of Discourses), but I'd be very surprised if anyone, ever seriously believed they needed to be on the receiving end of Mormon "blood atonement". (There's one claimed case mentioned in the Wikipedia entry, but that one looks a little suspicious.)
That said -- I as explained above -- one Mormon's experience isn't a good measure of what Mormons (in general) believe. For all I know, maybe some congregations are still teaching blood atonement, particularly in the Mormon fundamentalist churches (which figure prominently in Latayne Scott's book).
I suspect that the reason for the focus on blood atonement in this book isn't just because of the doctrine's deadly potential for abuse -- it's also because it's such a terrible heresy for Christians to suggest that anyone would atone for their own sins under any circumstances (as opposed to relying on Christ's atonement). In my personal opinion, this book suffers from the usual bias that Mormonism is wrong because it contradicts Evangelical Christianity. That's obviously not the only problem the author has with Mormonism, but I get the strong sense that the author sees it as the root problem.
One point in particular stood out as being typical of a Christian take on Mormonism. One character (who was raised Mormon) stops believing in Mormonism because she's upset by the doctrine that Heavenly Father was human and had a father. The character wanted a God who is far above all that. Again, as someone raised Mormon, I find this scenario bizarre and alien. To me, there's nothing strange or upsetting about the idea that God is a "Heavenly Father" who had his own "Heavenly Father." When the character gets upset about this doctrine out of the blue, it was (to me) as though she'd suddenly become disappointed that her parents have their own parents, instead of there being one true set of parents for everyone. (Note: I'm an atheist, but I strongly disagree with the belief that Christian monotheism is more natural or logical than polytheism, see here). By coincidence, another post appeared in the Bloggernacle just the other day (here) about how some people find the Mormon concept of an embodied parent-God deeply spiritually appealing.
I know, it's fiction, so anything is possible. And since I have an example in my blogroll of someone who was Mormon yet felt profoundly drawn to pagan-style polytheism (see here), it's clear that sometimes people do make this sort of dramatic shifts. Still, you shouldn't bank on it, and I feel like the book illustrates the standard misconception: You want to believe that other people -- deep down -- know that your concept of God makes more sense than their own concept of God. But it's just not the case.
So, overall, the book is engaging as a murder mystery, and -- as a warning story to illustrate the dangers of Mormonism -- at least it raises some interesting discussion points.
Note that the author will be give a talk about this book at the 2009 Exmormon Foundation Conference.