Andrew Hunt’s first novel is set in a rarely written about time and place—1930s Salt Lake City, Utah. Skipping to the end notes (which really should be read after you finish the book), I found that Hunt is obsessed with the true-life, unsolved 1930 murder of Dorothy Dexter Moormeister in Salt Lake. Using the basic facts of Moormeister’s death, Hunt does what all good historical novelists do: he adds emotional detail, and, most importantly for a mystery reader, a resolution to the case.
The hero of Hunt’s novel is one Art Oveson, at the opening of the novel a deputy sheriff. He is first out to view the battered body of Helen Pfaltzgraff, who turns out to the be the wife of a well-known doctor in Salt Lake. Art is new to the job, and one of the novel’s journeys is following him as he gains experience.
Art is a Mormon whose family life is central to his existence. He adheres closely to the religious beliefs held by much of the heavily Mormon community of Salt Lake City, the original “City of Saints.” Some of the Mormon code includes listening to his parents and older siblings, many of whom are also in law enforcement. This sometimes proves difficult for him.
The investigation of Helen’s murder is an eye-opening experience for Art, who generally lives on the straight and narrow. He’s shocked by some of the more sordid details of Helen’s life, despite her prominent position in the community. It forces him to look beyond the mask of behavior presented to the outside world by Helen’s privilege. It’s Art’s adherence to what’s right (if not always to the straight and narrow) that carries him through his investigation. He’s a white knight, literally sporting a much mentioned (and frequently damaged) white Stetson hat.
Art is partnered with Roscoe Lund, a considerably older and far more cynical officer. Theirs is a nice balancing act. While some parts of the story are predictable, other parts are more refreshing. I knew that Art, who has an issue with Roscoe early on, would circle back to him for help; but I was surprised at the path Art takes to get there. The portrait of Salt Lake City in the 1930s is an indelible one, and I imagine the ice cream parlor frequently mentioned by Hunt is or was a real place.
As the investigation progresses, Art’s changing attitudes and what he is learning about the world are presented in a very believable way. He’s forced outside the conventional workings of law enforcement, and starts to use connections and his own knowledge of Salt Lake City to solve the crime. Working somewhat outside of law enforcement places him firmly in the universe of outsider detectives like Harry Bosch, John Rebus, or even Barbara Havers. All of these detectives use their smarts and instincts, rather than strict rules, to resolve their cases.
The rhythms of the complicated mystery are somewhat gentle, but there are enough twists to keep you reading. I also liked the network of fellow Mormons that Art relies on at crucial parts of his investigation. All in all, this is an original and memorable read.