His Right Hand (the conflicted review)

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Not so many pages into my reading of Mette Ivie Harrison’s new sequel to The Bishop’s WifeHis Right Hand, I decided I was going to write two reviews of this novel: His Right Hand — The Positive Review and His Right Hand — The Negative Review. I wasn’t sure which I would publish first vs which I would let sit on top, but it seemed like a good method to praise what I like and discuss directly what I don’t.

But I can’t write those reviews. By the time I reached the end of the novel, I’d realized that the good and the bad of the Linda Wallheim mysteries are too interwoven to cleanly separate. My concern, however, is that by interweaving them I will be giving the negative more weight. We’ll see how it goes. Ready?

His-Right-Hand-liftedfromthepublisherFirst, I just need to say that something went wrong in the editing/proofing process. My theory is that Harrison doesn’t get final say when there are disagreements. This has to be my theory because the only other explanation is sloppiness—which might be the correct explanation when it’s something like a sentence being repeated (not for effect, just confusingly), but how do you explain this?

“What about your area of authority? Can’t you appeal to him? Or to the Quorum of the Seventy? Or someone?” (154)

Obviously, Linda is talking about an Area Authority, but that expression is a crazy Mormonism that was changed according to someone’s best guess even though it turns the following sentence into nonsense. Or take this from a couple pages earlier:

I turned back around. “I know that. But I also know that you are a worldly man. None of this is about money, is it? It’s about all of us working together as a ward family to make it back to God, isn’t it?” (150)

To most Americans, this will make perfect sense. But we Mormons have developed a rather idiosyncratic definition all our own of “worldly” that turns this line of dialogue into a 40-word oxymoron. My generous explanation is that Linda’s use of the outside-the-bubble definition of “worldly” is a shibboleth to the educated Grant Rhodes that they’re both intellectually above the average Mormon rabble, but that is . . . well, it’s bullcrap, honey. It’s like reading a novel about people in the Bay Area referring to “the City” and meaning Manhattan. It’s just wrong.

Anyway. Thanks for letting me vent. On the bright side, this novel suffers much less from the over-the-top worldbuilding of its predecessor. But let’s get to the novel proper, shall we?

One thing about a series of cozies like this that you just have to accept going in is that there will be a statistically unlikely number of murders in the community. Suspend your disbelief before entering and you should be fine.

One thing Harrison does well in this respect is she allows the previous violence to leave the community changed, damaged, stressed. This is vital because some nutty things happen in this ward that can only be accepted if you the reader recognize that everyone’s rather on edge, what with all the murdering and stuff. Murdering, one imagines, being the sort of thing that makes people behave somewhat less than their best.

Anyway, the murdered this time is a minor character from the first novel, Carl Ashby, the bishop’s second counselor. The twist is that during the autopsy it’s discovered that Carl is biologically female and is still female below the waist.

The Transgender Question is a timely one here in 2015—and for me personally as well. Besides the agender member of our ward who’s been trying to find a place in a very gendered church, I have two students right now who are transgender boys. Not to mention the events of early November which still stagger me whenever I look at them anew.

So I’m glad this book has arrived. And I was glad as the novel started that although Carl’s secret staggers his community (wouldn’t it surprise you?), the novel, in those early pages, treats him with respect:

Because God loves us all, no matter how disgusting we are to others. God looks on the heart, not on the appearance. Surely God would have seen the man Carl was trying to be, not the woman he had been born as. (53)

I am not, in the confines of an already overlong review, going to try to untangle the messy theology of Mormonism and gender, but Linda’s response seems a very Mormony way to deal with it: stick it on the shelf and move on.

In fact, the most true-ringing spiritual moment in the novel comes when Linda stands at the murder site and feels as if the spirit of Carl is asking for her help (49).

Now, just because Carl is allowed to be fully human doesn’t mean the novel should turn him into a flawless angel but—

* * * FROM THIS POINT ON BE THERE SPOILERS * * *

His murder quickly moves Carl from hypermasculine jerk to sympathetic character. Then the novel spends the rest of the time chewing away at Linda’s faith in him. By the end he’s a guy who, for instance, arranges adulterous trysts in the church building. I’m all for ambiguity, but the accidental result is that the novel gives room for those those who find the transgendered to be monsters to feel they were right all along.

Close reading of the novel’s final pages suggest that this confusion occurs because this novel is trying to be The Great Mormon American Transgender Novel (or something) when really that should have been a side issue. Trying to press the transgender issue to the forefront page in and page out gets in the way of the stronger themes under consideration. Here are some that could have been teased out more fully during rewriting:

Theme 1: Religious/secular conflict.

The novel would have us believe that a stake president can stop the cops from arresting someone they are quite certain is a murderer because he’s just not feeling it. This Johnny-Law-trumped-by-Mormon-leadership theme colored The Bishop’s Wife as well, but this is egregious. If this is actual fact, the Trib owes us some serious investigative journalism. Break this story NOW, Trib. If it’s not real, then . . . why does it keep showing up int he novels? It’s stressed heavily and I have no idea why. It’s coming off like a cheap way to complicate things. This theme should have been cut.

Theme 2: Linda Wallheim’s pathological uncertainty.

Although Linda is occasionally a strong and interesting character with plenty of agency and a modern-gal sensibility, she is crippled by uncertainty. Take these lines from the novel’s penultimate chapter:

. . . I wasn’t eager to have [her husband] Kurt yell at me and force me to admit that he had been right and I had been wrong [right and wrong about what, however, I, Theric, have no idea]. (329)

Was that [her husband’s prayer] the reason I’d received the spiritual help I knew I hadn’t deserved? (330)

Poor Kurt. He lost enough sleep as it was, just from being a bishop. Now he was losing even more because he was my husband. (331)

It reaches a point where it comes off like self-hatred—an internalized sexism that speaks much more strongly to the reading audience than any lip service to the contrary. Linda is supposed to be the voice of reason in sexist Draper, but she seems pretty beaten down here, like she just got off the plane from Stockholm. This is all the more curious when the novel goes out of its way to suggest the Church needs women to fill the sorts of roles that currently only men fill. No fewer than three characters confess to Linda, for instance.

I recognize that this was the main question of The Bishop’s Wife and I would not suggest that every entry in the series should be sounding the same note, but Linda seems worse off (mentally, emotionally, spiritually) in book two and I can’t understand why. If she’s not oppressed, will greater America cry foul?

Theme 3: Parents both love and damage their children.

I might have glossed over this theme were it not explicitly stated:

We all reach an age when we begin to wonder how much we are like our parents, and it haunts us. (326)

This smacked me in the face and I realized this was the real question His Right Hand was grappling with. It even provides the most resonant explanation for that title: we are as our parents are.

If you’ve read the novel, think back at all the times parents behave (or attempt not to behave) towards their children as their own parents behaved toward them. The novel is filled with this motif. And maybe it’s just something about where I am in my life, but I think the novel would be stronger if it had undergone one more rewrite bringing out this theme instead of trying to hammer on the gender issues (trans and otherwise). What’s present is rich and integral to the most moving parts of the story. If, instead of it being crammed into the background, it had been allowed to fill all available space, other aspects of the text could have remained their natural size, rather than stretched into uncertain shapes.

And that is my final takeaway from His Right Hand. It’s a fine enough mystery, but it’s confused about its deeper purposes. Until those pieces can work together, the Linda Wallheim Mysteries will never quite be the works of fiction they were born to be.

5 thoughts on “His Right Hand (the conflicted review)”

  1. “It’s a fine enough mystery, but it’s confused about its deeper purposes. Until those pieces can work together, the Linda Wallheim Mysteries will never quite be the works of fiction they were born to be”

    That sums up how I felt about the first book, and I just don’t know if I feel up to reading this new one. The uneven editing, weirdly inconsistent world-building, and heavy-handed gender politics were a bit too much for me the first time around. I had a similar reaction to your bishop’s wife about the relationship between the Wallheims–it was so bizarre as to make me want to stop reading. I didn’t recognize my ward or any Mormons I know in the characters in The Bishop’s Wife–but, to be honest, I rarely recognize any Mormons I know in most Mormon fiction I read.

  2. I appreciate the review. I haven’t read The Right Hand but read The Bishop’s Wife. The thing that I didn’t like about the book was the main character. The internalized sexism you describe may be the problem. On the one hand she seemed beaten-down, resentful, uncertain. On the other hand, the members of the ward seemed to perceive her as a paragon of virtue and strength. I was trying to figure out who she really was. Was she merely good at putting on a good face for the ward members but in her heart she was an annoying, poor-me, I’m so bad person kind of character? For me, the main character has to be stronger or at least honest to carry a series of murder mysteries. Otherwise it becomes a long character study of a timid person who doesn’t know who they are.

  3. I haven’t read The Bishop’s Wife yet. I’m intrigued because of this review, and I think your stated objections will help me with expectations ease my reading of it.

    I hate how many books that could be great are rendered less enjoyable because of poor (or nonexistent) editing.

  4. .

    Something I forgot to mention that I liked was how Linda tries to have an Agatha Christie-esque gathering in the end.

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