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CITY OF SAINTS
by Andrew Hunt
Minotaur Books, October 2012
336 pages
$24.99
ISBN: 1250015790


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Andrew Hunt's debut novel is based on a historical murder of a Utah socialite in 1930. A professor of history who grew up in Salt Lake City, he is well-credentialed to spin the socialite's untimely end into an entertaining yarn, a sketch of depression area Mormon city life, and a meditation on the idea of what decency might mean, then and now. Hunt's work won the 2011 Tony Hillerman Prize, which honors a first mystery set in the Southwest.

Dramatis personae: Helen Kent Pfalzgraf, unfortunately defunct, having been repeatedly run over with her own vehicle; young Deputy Arthur Oveson, son and grandson of Mormon pioneers and law enforcement officials who feels he has his father's reputation to live up to; Clara Oveson, his energetic, supportive wife, mother of his children and his brothers and their wives; foul mouthed booze-swilling veteran of the Battle of the Marne Deputy Roscoe Lund, who serves as a frequent foil to Arthur's teetotaling ways and rated-G conversation; Fred Cannon, the crooked sheriff pushing for re-election, a little extra campaign funding, and a quick and painless solution to the crime; Dr. Pfalzgraf, grieving husband, owner of a lavish home, a respected physician but also the abortionist to those in the city able to pay; Parley Tanner, Pfalzgraf's rather slick and well-heeled lawyer; and Floyd Samuelson, the good doctor's security guard, whose boyish face, unabashed love for his new baby, and Mormon good manners almost make one forget that there was once someone named "Pretty Boy" that shared his name.

Although we readers would very much like to discover whodunit, the search drives the better part of the novel. We are reminded that it is 1930, that DNA evidence cannot speed up the process of uncovering the criminals so that the beginning, middle, and end will fit into a sixty-minute segment plus commercial breaks. Despite the authenticity of the slow pace, readers may wish the plot had been tighter. Eventually the mismatched Deputies Oveson and Rund, working in secret around the unsavory Sheriff Cannon, uncover films hidden in an abandoned mine and scare the murderer to kill again. Despite an occasional jarring moment when characters do not act with the emotion that the moment seems to call for, Hunt is at his best when he paints psychological portraits such as the hidden, frightened women seeking to end pregnancies in the abortionist's rooms. But his loving portrait of Salt Lake City, with its grand

Temple presiding over the square and a people unaware that they were living between the parentheses of two wars is likely to linger in the reader's memory just as long. As the two gumshoes turn over clues, characters go to the movies for pennies in glittering theaters. Readers may savor the wearing of fedoras, remember when polio was a threat.

The solution turns on the murdered woman's craving for a life more glittering and sensual than that offered by Salt Lake City. She barters her attractiveness in trade for masculine attention, a Hollywood movie screening, and later, money. Her death reveals, not just her own unbearable desires, but the fissures in the city's masks. Deputy Rund's devotion to his cat tells us that his jabs at Deputy Oveson's religion hide deeper fellow-feeling. There are proper Mormon housewives, but there is also feminine desire that is sometimes fatally uneasy with the bounds set round it. The sheriff who attends LDS services each Sunday uses blackmail and graft to stay in office. Religion and rite pervade every street corner and every page; criminality, mostly of the type that wants what is not economically or culturally available, wiggles free from rite and religion to kill and kill again. As 1930s sketch, Hunt's book is wistful for a slower time while acknowledging that conflict and violence undergirds human societies.

Cathy Downs, Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, is a longtime devotee of the well-turned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, November 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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