Fiction and Culture: Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife

A good Mormon mystery
Novels — particularly good ones — convey a sense of place. This is absolutely true of mystery novels, from Kwei Quartey’s police detective in Ghana to Alexander McCall Smith’s private detective in Botswana. But how much do we really about a place or a culture from a work of fiction?

I recently listened to the audiobook of Mette Ivie Harrison’s first mystery novel, The Bishop’s Wife. (There are currently three mysteries in the series.) Here’s the quick: I couldn’t stop listening. Harrison has crafted a page-turner. Early one morning, a man turns up at the home of the bishop, reporting that his wife has gone missing. The bishop’s wife, Linda Wallheim, uses her neighborly kindness to get to the bottom of the case. Linda is a rich, complicated character, with faith and doubt and caring and curiosity all boiled into one. I look forward to reading of her further adventures. I had a few critiques — a few plot twists towards the end struck me as implausible and Harrison really doubles down on a theme — but the other virtues make up for them. If you enjoy mysteries, then I recommend this one.

Even more striking to me was how much I noticed that the protagonist was really speaking my language. She speaks…Mormon.* Now, I don’t read a lot of Mormon fiction — and I’m defining Mormon fiction here as fiction written by Mormons and taking place among Mormons. Besides Jack Weyland’s Charly and the sequel Sam (as a teenager), and then James Ferrell’s The Peacegiver (which is more of a long parable rather than a novel), that’s it for me. Of course, there are many Mormon cultures. As Harrison puts it in the novel, “Sometimes it seemed like Mormons outside of Utah were part of an entirely different church.” But there was enough overlap between Linda’s worldview and mine to really feel at home.

What does it tell us about Mormon culture? 
This book was well-reviewed in the broader media, gaining coverage in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and elsewhere. Note a common thread in the reviews
  • “Harrison’s insider view of Mormon doctrine and religious practices forms a complex tapestry that serves as background and context for the crimes and misdemeanors of the Mormon men and women of Draper.” (L.A. Times)
  • “Harrison, a Mormon herself, easily transports readers into a world most will find as unfamiliar as a foreign country.” (Publishers Weekly)
  • “Ms. Harrison is also, like Linda, a Mormon mother of five who lives in Utah and is very conversant with church doctrine.” (New York Times)
  • “The Bishop’s Wife is not only a great story, but a revealing look at Mormonism and its followers.” (New York Journal of Books)
  • “Whatever else this book may or may not offer crime fiction aficionados it does provide a fascinating insight into what is, at least for me, an unfamiliar religion.” (Reactions to Reading blog)
  • “An insider’s look at a religion replete with its own mysteries.” (Kirkus Reviews)
  • “Provides an excellent viewpoint into some of Mormonism’s more eccentric practices.” (Sarah’s Book Shelves blog)

All of these non-Mormon reviewers see this not only as a solid mystery but also as a peek inside an unfamiliar faith. To her credit, I sense that Harrison makes an effort to have her protagonist not only express her personal beliefs but also to station those beliefs relative to those of others in the faith. But how well does one really learn about a culture from a novel? I appreciate this cautionary line from a review of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which is set in Botswana.

“But she teaches us about Botswana, I hear you say. Perhaps she does, but just as you wouldn’t read Winnie-the-Pooh to learn about life in rural England, so too do not read In the Company of Cheerful Ladies to learn about Botswana. Read it simply because it brings a smile to your face and warmth to the heart. Just like a certain bear.”

But why not? Why not read Smith to learn about Botswana or Harrison to learn about Mormonism? On the former, Smith isn’t Botswanan, so that’s one reason. But more generally, novelists are not fundamentally ethnographers or historians. Some dabble in ethnography or history, but it’s not their expertise and — in most cases — neither is it their principal objective.

Of course, non-Mormons will learn about Mormonism from The Bishop’s Wife, and I’ll learn about Botswana from Smith, and maybe I’ll even learn something about rural England from Winnie-the-Pooh. Just not too much. I propose that the right way to think about what a novel teaches us about a culture is to consider the novel to be a long conversation with a representative of the culture. If I took a multi-day taxi ride with a single taxi driver in Peru, we’d chat and I’d learn about Peru. But I’d recognize that I’d spoken with just one person.

Now, you might say, “But Harrison really gets it right!” This doesn’t work on two levels. First, we have to ask, What does it mean to “get it right” about a culture, especially in a few hundred pages? As one commentator wrote: “At times the commentary and feminist frosting was laid on thick, which probably won’t be palatable your average faithful Mormons. However, I could see Mormons who are more liberal and progressive nod their heads and say ‘amen’ to some of Harrison’s passages.” I had mixed feelings: a casual reader might get a sense of general beliefs but also believe that views that I think of as deeply non-standard are more widely believed than I think they are. But again, what do I know? I know my little corner of the LDS faith.

Second, only an insider can evaluate how effectively the author captures the culture (and even they can only do it imperfectly, due to the multiple sub-cultures problem above). If I’m reading about another culture, then how do I know how accurate it is? About 25 years ago, I would do the American Sign Language interpretation at a local ward’s sacrament meeting. Hearing members would come up afterwards and comment on how skilled I was. I always wondered, But how on earth would they know if I was good or not? (Of course, this was well intentioned, and I was moving my hands very quickly, so no disrespect is intended to the kind members of the Monrovia Ward in California.) Likewise, I might read A.A. Milne and think, Yes, he really gets the Kangas and Tiggers and Heffalumps right on rural England. It certainly sounds authoritative. I’d be wrong, although second breakfast is a brilliant innovation.

Fiction is instructive. It teaches truth about the human spirit. It gives a single person’s insight into their culture. I hope that non-Mormons learn about Mormon beliefs and culture from Harrison. I just hope they don’t assume they’ve learned it all. 

*Acknowledgment to Dave Banack for this phrasing which put words to what I’d been feeling.

9 comments for “Fiction and Culture: Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife

  1. Clark
    August 30, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    Culture in books is always an interesting question. I went through a phase where I loved reading Tony Hillerman’s books that took place in the four corners region. How true was it? I don’t know despite living in Navajo territory for a while. Then I went through a period where I loved reading Anne Perry’s mysteries set in Victorian England. How accurate did she get the culture? Again I don’t know, but I’ll admit the culture was very much at the forefront. Finally Ellis Peters’ (Edith Pargeter) Father Cadfael series was fantastic for a period of history I didn’t know well – the time immediately after the crusades. She’s a scholar of the period so I assume it’s reasonably well researched but how accurate is it? I don’t know.

    It is interesting that so many mysteries seem primarily tied to examining these cultures. I’m trying to think of mysteries where foreign culture wasn’t the real key for me. Sherlock Holmes I guess but those are short stories.

  2. David Evans
    August 30, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    Thanks, Clark. I agree that many mysteries do seem to try and share something about a culture, like the ones you mentioned, Kwei Quartey’s books set in Ghana. This is particularly true, I suspect, when the author imagines most of the audience will be from a different culture, as is likely the case with Toni Hillerman and certainly the case with the historical novels.

    A good counter-example is Agatha Christie. I’ve read many of her books, and while they do take place in a time and place, there is very little investment in the culture. Another potential example are Robert Parker’s mysteries, many of them set in the Boston area. He spends a fair amount of time on Boston geography, but I’d say he spends relatively little on the culture. Again, he may have assumed that most of his audience was American, but still, he doesn’t invest a lot in the particularities of Bostonian culture.

  3. Hedgehog
    August 31, 2017 at 12:57 am

    I also enjoy the writing of Alexander McCall Smith, Ellis Peters and Anne Perry. The settings are so evocative. Smith was born and raised in what is now Zimbabwe, before moving to Scotland for university, helped establish the law dept at the university of Botsawana, and visits the country regularly.
    I especially enjoy Lindsey Davis’s mysteries set in the Roman Empire. I’ve no idea how accurate her portrayal of the culture might be, but it too is very well done and so much fun.
    I’ve yet to read Harrison’s books, they aren’t available in my local library, but your review is the first to make me think I’d enjoy then and that it would be worth me getting them. Thank you.

  4. Dave B.
    August 31, 2017 at 9:38 am

    I enjoyed the book. Partly because it was a good mystery — a chatty, feel-good mystery — and partly because of the Mormon culture context. It showed up on my local library New Books shelf, and I sort of felt an obligation to read a Mormon writer’s book that showed up there. I’ll make sure they get the other volumes in the series if they don’t have them already.

    Here’s an angle that makes this sort of Mormonism-in-the-background novel more relevant for all Mormon readers. Mormons have reached the degree of visibility in the general culture that Mormon characters will show up in TV shows and movies and novels in the same way that Catholics and Evangelicals and Jews show up in predictable stereotypes. The “Mormon stereotype” is not generally flattering. It is often shallow. So if we are going to encounter more realistic or more compelling Mormon characters, it is probably going to be in book written by Mormon authors. We need to support those Mormon authors who make that attempt. If we don’t, all there will be is the unflattering, shallow depictions one sees elsewhere.

  5. David Evans
    August 31, 2017 at 10:03 am

    This is a good point, Dave. I do think it’s been interesting to see the shift in the culture where Jews can appear in TV shows and movies without that being a central point. Likewise, I think that’s slowly happening with gays. And I agree that Mormon authors are well placed to show three-dimensional Mormons. I’ll also recommend that my library get the other books in the Linda Wallheim series.

  6. David Evans
    August 31, 2017 at 10:15 am

    Hedgehog: Thanks for your comment. I knew that Smith had some background in Botswana; it’s nice to hear it fleshed out. I read several books in the series and enjoyed them.

  7. sba
    September 1, 2017 at 2:57 pm

    I wish I could remember where I read the review of this book that helpfully explained the role of a Mormon bishop’s wife: she doesn’t have official responsibilities, but is expected to serve coffee to people who come by the house to see her husband. I can’t stop chortling at the thought of myself with saccharine smile, frilly apron and coffeepot.

  8. David Evans
    September 2, 2017 at 8:27 pm

    sba: Ha! Yes, I have never encountered a bishop’s wife who has played that role.

  9. Dan
    September 25, 2017 at 10:52 pm

    Late to the party, but how can you have an article about the dangers of learning about Mormonism from mystery novels and not mention “A Study in Scarlet”?

Comments are closed.