In Banta’s (The Girls from Fourth Ward, 2012) second murder mystery to feature detective Matt Ryan, the murder of a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may lead to a killer within the church.
When Brother Dooley is found beaten to death in Abbottsville, Calif., people immediately suspect Bishop Paul Zimmerman; after all, he was at the scene holding the murder weapon. But Lt. Ryan, who’d previously worked a murder case involving members of the same congregation, has his doubts, as does the bishop’s pregnant wife, Carrie. Both Ryan and Carrie look into the murder, which might have ties to the church’s support of Proposition 8, which sought to outlaw gay marriage in California. Banta’s novel, which sometimes alludes to her previous work, is presented from two perspectives: Ryan’s first-person narration and Carrie’s third-person. The dual viewpoints tend to emphasize, with tongue firmly in cheek, the differences between churchgoers and non: Carrie’s “Oh my heck” and her sex suggestion from a magazine found at a hair salon versus Ryan’s decidedly colorful language and his meeting informants at their porn shop. The book is often blatantly critical of Mormonism, from its opposition to same-sex marriage to Carrie having to quit her job and become a mother full time after Paul is appointed bishop. Carrie’s recurring thought, “I love being a Mormon,” can come across as a bit derisive and cynical, even if she’s unaware of its effect. The investigation side of the mystery is occasionally skimmed, and it’s not always clear how Ryan or Carrie reach their deductions, especially since they investigate separately but manage to zero in on the same suspect. Carrie’s amateur sleuthing, however, results in the novel’s best sequence: A pregnant prowler, in her third trimester and clad all in black, she doesn’t creep into a crime scene—she waddles. This type of lighthearted but rewarding humor is retained even when Carrie is working with Ryan: During an unofficial undercover gig, he mistakes the expectant mother’s desperate need for a bathroom break as trepidation.
This novel scores big not because of its mystery but due to its pregnant protagonist and her inexorable fortitude.