Unforgettable characters and quirky story elevate Mormon literary mystery
One of the pleasures of reading spiritual fiction is slipping into a new belief system and wearing it for a while. Steven L. Peck’s Mormon literary mystery settles you in Moab, Utah, where you can experience small-town Mormon culture even if you disagree with the cosmology. Peck’s amazing cast of characters and mind-bending plot infuse this dark comedy with unexpected insight and laugh-out-loud surprises.
Story: Young Hyrum Thayne, an unrefined geological surveyor, steals a massive dictionary out of the Grand County library in a midnight raid, startling the good people of Moab into believing a nefarious band of Book of Mormon thugs, the Gadianton Robbers, has arisen again. To make matters worse, Hyrum’s illicit affair with Dora Tanner, a local poet thought to be mad, results in the delivery of a bouncing baby boy who vanishes the night of his birth. Righteous Moabites accuse Dora of the murder, but who really killed their child? Did a coyote dingo the baby? Was it an alien abduction as Dora claims? Was it Hyrum? Or could it have been the only witness to the crime, one of a pair of Oxford-educated conjoined twins who cowboy in the La Sals on sabbatical? (From amazon.com)
Spiritual/metaphysical content: Low. The story reflects philosophies that range from Navajo lore, Wiccans, Mormon folklore, and Jewish mystical thought to Jungian synchronicity, Kant’s categorical imperative, and the neuroscience of “god modules” in the brain. However, none are explored in any depth. Peck does not endorse any particular belief system, including Mormonism; he uses the dynamics and influences of the many conflicting beliefs to explore the workings of a small Mormon community.
My take: The Scholar of Moab is a dark and delicious literary puzzle, rich with quirky details that reveal how small-town prejudice, the power of gossip, mass hysteria, and Mormon mysticism can play out in startling and yet familiar ways. Peck’s masterful use of language produces four distinct perspectives–four unforgettable characters who search for the same truths in different ways only to fail themselves and others.
Hyrum, the self-identified Scholar of Moab, is unforgettable: plodding and quotidian and yet utterly extraordinary, an odd mix of mystic and pragmatist. His journal reads like Mormon prophesy, and the way he misuses words is at once excruciating and delightful. He is determined to educate himself because a scholar is “the closest man could attain in becoming like God.” A clear and noble goal, but one that leads to tragic consequences.
Dora represents beauty and mystery. Through her, Peck revels in his passion for lyrical language and imagery. He slowly exposes Dora’s character through poetry, letters, and short stories, which are by turns lovely and haunting, fascinating and disturbing. Both Hyram and Dora adore “two-dollar words,” as if the grandness of their vocabularies could compensate for the smallness of their world.
The conjoined twins embody higher knowledge, both rational and philosophical. Their intertwined spirits balance uneasily between Christianity and scientific reason; perhaps their body contains a third spirit that possesses the wisdom to encompass them both.
The story’s unidentified narrator (who calls himself the Redactor) is introduced as an objective observer, but by the end of the novel he is as embroiled in the mystery as the others. And then there’s the La Sals, which encompasses Utah’s Canyonlands and Arches national parks. This setting is a stark and strange character in its own right, and a fitting backdrop for a plot studded with alien abductions and Old West shoot-outs.
Peck’s masterful literary mystery reveals its secrets in fractions, planting clues like arrowheads in Moab’s dusty hills and propelling the story faster and faster as you race to discover who murdered the new-born child. But can you trust any of the characters’ revelations? The story ultimately resolves into a deeply troubling murder mystery in which only the reader can determine the real story of the Scholar of Moab.
The Scholar of Moab, by Steven L. Peck
Torrey House Press, 2011
Paperback, 294 pages
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