Book review: ‘His Right Hand,’ by Mette Ivie Harrison

His Right Hand, Mette Ivie Harrison’s follow-up to last year’s acclaimed The Bishop’s Wife, is the kind of mystery novel that sneaks up on a reader.

You wouldn’t expect a book about the crime-solving wife of a staid Mormon leader to be so edgy and engrossing. It has all the outward signs of being a conventional “cozy” mystery that plays it safe.

But Linda Wallheim, the bishop’s wife, is quite the independent thinker who is full of surprises — and Harrison delivers a provocative tale that doesn’t shy away from timely social issues.

The murder victim in His Right Hand is Carl Ashby, the second counselor to Linda’s husband, Kurt. He is strangled one night in the ward church. Our hero and her husband, naturally, are the ones who find the body.

The victim is what Linda calls a “TBM,” as in True Blue Mormon, someone quite adamant in his belief that women in the church should play subservient roles to their husbands in every way. That being the case, imagine everyone’s dismay when the police autopsy reveals that Carl is, biologically, a Carla!

Inevitably, everyone who knew Carl begins to wonder: How could a woman posing as a man deceive so many so successfully for so long? How could his wife of 20 years not know? And why did this person, of all people, choose to take such an oppressive stance regarding women?

As church leaders fret about potential scandal, they quickly lose sight of the real issues — that a pillar of the community has lost his life in a coldblooded crime and that the killer may be one of their own.

The stake president uses his influence with local Utah police to suppress the investigation. Neighbors get caught up in spreading petty gossip. Even Kurt Wallheim, who had been one of Carl’s closest friends, reacts judgmentally.

But Linda — who is not so quick to condemn, perhaps because she has a whopper of a secret that she has been hiding for years — sensitively looks into the matter.

She gets involved not because she’s a cliché murder-mystery busybody, but because she genuinely wants to do the right thing for the victim and his surviving wife and adopted children.

In the meantime, on the home front, there are more secrets to be addressed. One of Linda and Kurt’s five kids comes out, creating a strained relationship between father and son.

The run-of-the-mill procedural aspects of the murder investigation are not this book’s strengths.

His Right Hand stands out instead because of the uneasy questions that the characters ask themselves about their core beliefs. The Mormon church, after all, hasn’t exactly led the way in re-evaluating its once-unwelcoming position toward the transgender community.

A visit to Harrison’s website, meanwhile, reveals that plucky Linda Wallheim is a lot like the author. Harrison, who wrote a series of young-adult novels before releasing The Bishop’s Wife, is a lifelong member of the Mormon church.

Harrison is also very forthcoming about the fact that she had a crisis of faith a decade ago following the death of a child. She lived five years within the church as a closet atheist before re-embracing her faith. The character of Linda Wallheim shares those experiences with the author.

Harrison also shares in her afterword that she was inspired in part by the plight of a transgender child of close family friends. Unlike the plot of her book, though, the real-life story ended happily.

His Right Hand

  • by Mette Ivie Harrison
  • Soho Crime, $26.95