Bartley’s second Abish Taylor mystery, Death in the Covenant (Crooked Lane, Aug.), exposes dark secrets within the Mormon church leadership.
Did you set out to write a series centering on the Mormons?
No. I set out to write a murder mystery that happened to take place in Utah. I have a PhD in political science, and I worked as an attorney for years, which means I like to figure out how communities structure themselves, what rules are created and enforced, and how belief systems are maintained. As it turns out, Mormonism provides a fascinating backdrop for a mystery. In Blessed Be the Wicked, the first book, the question that emerged for me was: what are the consequences when a community ignores, but doesn’t disavow, a violent doctrine? Blood atonement isn’t part of mainstream Mormonism, but it is undeniably part of Mormon history. In Death in the Covenant, I couldn’t escape the question of how valuing faith and obedience above all else can lead to some very dark places. In other words, there’s the classic mystery first, then there’s an exploration of society and belief systems.
To what extent are the changes that church leaders are forced to consider in the story based on reality?
I was inspired by John Birger’s intriguing article “What Two Religions Tell Us About the Modern Dating Crisis,” in which he explores how shifting demographics are affecting Mormon and Orthodox Jewish communities in this country. According to Trinity College’s American Religious Identification Survey, in 2015 there were 150 Mormon women for every 100 Mormon men in the state of Utah. This imbalance sparked a memory of a story I’d heard in Sunday school about President Polk demanding 500 Mormon men to fight in the Mexican-American War in 1846, leaving the Mormons who were fleeing violence in Illinois shorthanded, and with a distinct gender imbalance. That’s all I can say without spoiling the plot.
How have active church members reacted to the first book?
It’s been better received than I expected. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a powerful, hierarchical organization that operates largely in private. It’s fun to play with that. Conspiracy and corruption are sort of a natural fit. I think most people recognize that this is fiction. Of course, some Mormons found the first book unpalatable. Church leaders recommend members restrict their reading to that which is faith-affirming. I don’t expect Blessed Be the Wicked or Death in the Covenant to be on shelves at Deseret Book, the church-run bookstore, any time soon.