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Life's a Mystery 

Mette Ivie Harrison's The Prodigal Daughter finds connections tothe author's own life and broader societal issues.

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ASHLEY THALMAN
  • Ashley Thalman

As the fifth book in a mystery series that has been running for several years, Mette Ivie Harrison's The Prodigal Daughter has a foundation that was put in place long ago. But more recent events led to a book that was more relevant and timely to the culture in general, and to the author in particular.

A Salt Lake City resident and veteran of young adult fantasy novels, Harrison created Linda Wallheim—the Mormon housewife/amateur mystery-solver protagonist of the new The Prodigal Daughter and its predecessors, beginning with The Bishop's Wife—at a time when she was struggling to get her work published in the wake of the 2008 recession. "I bumped up against a wall," Harrison recalls. "I gave my agent a list of ideas, and [The Bishop's Wife] was at the bottom. He said, 'Whatever you do, don't write that one. No one cares about Mormonism.'"

"In a weird way, that gave me permission," she adds; "the idea that 'no one would read it' meant I could write it just for me."

Harrison describes Linda Wallheim as "like [Agatha Christie's] Jane Marple, just a nosy lady who pokes around and asks questions; she has no authority." Yet what complicates Wallheim as a character is the recent empty-nester struggling with her role as a woman within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and various church policies including its attitudes towards LGBTQ members (one of Linda's sons is a gay missionary). That conflict includes a growing rift between her and her husband, the bishop in their LDS ward.

"It made sense in terms of a mystery series," Harrison says of Linda's arc. "The detective, amateur or professional, is often on a downward spiral. I'd read many series that had a male character in that downward spiral, drinking or having a marriage destroyed. And I wanted to plot that for my female character."

Though Harrison said she didn't realize it consciously at the time she was planning a series of Linda Wallheim books, her own journey began to mirror that of her protagonist. Harrison began questioning her own role as a member of the Mormon church, and separating from it. At the end of 2020, she also separated from her husband of more than 25 years.

"I had questions and I had problems, but by the time [The Bishop's Wife] came out in 2014, I'd already charted out seven other books in the series," she says. "And I knew Linda was going to leave [the LDS church]. ... I planned that arc for Linda because I thought it was the most interesting arc. I still don't really think that I am Linda; in the beginning, I thought of her as this idealized Mormon woman who was capable of keeping her mouth shut when she needed to, and going with the group when necessary. Have I used some of my experiences of leaving? Yes, but I didn't mean this to be a memoir."

click to enlarge SOHO BOOKS
  • Soho Books

In The Prodigal Daughter, Linda Wallheim's crisis of faith collides with the case of a missing 15-year-old girl, the babysitter for her adult son and daughter-in-law. The narrative explores issues of sexual violence, the accompanying shame inspired by LDS church teachings on purity, and rape culture within a patriarchal religion. Those elements were not initially part of the story Harrison had planned to focus on teen homelessness and the various factors that can lead a young person to leave the pressures of a religious home. (Harrison dedicated the book in part to the youth homelessness non-profit Ogden Youth Futures and its director, Kristen Mitchell.)

As such, The Prodigal Daughter skirts around the edges of what would typically be considered a "mystery" novel, focusing less on the whodunnit aspect than on the culture in which the crime takes place. And Harrison says she's always preferred to push at genre expectations.

"If you look at my fantasies," she says, "I got the same kind of comments: 'How can you have magic work that way?' ... In The Bishop's Wife, I played with, how late can I have the dead body show up before mystery readers wonder what's going on. I'm absolutely playing with mystery conventions, but am I playing with it so far that it might not be considered a mystery? ... Each of the books in the series is kind of a formal challenge in my head. This one is 'no dead body, no resolution.' Can I sell that as a mystery book? I wasn't sure if my editor was going to expect me get away with that."

Whether or not The Prodigal Daughter is technically a "mystery novel," it continues a series that has connected with readers by not being the kind of book that would show up in an "official" Mormon bookstore as it deals honestly with the church in all its complexity. "When Mormons write, there's often this acknowledged or unacknowledged attempt to make Mormons look good," Harrison says. "And I have zero interest in that. I only wanted Mormons who look human."

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