It is hard to review a murder mystery novel. How do you say enough about the plot and characters to entice potential readers, to whet their appetite, without saying too much about the book and spoiling the surprise? This is especially hard for me. If you have ever read any of my reviews of historical books then you know that I tend to write long, detailed book reviews. Okay, I admit it, I am long-winded, period. But even though “Redeeming the Dead” is not my “normal genre” and was a challenging book for me to review, I really wanted to review it because it is such a great, well written, and an entertaining book.
“Redeeming the Dead” starts with the murder of police detective Dick Sharp in St. Augustine, Florida in 1987. The action then jumps twenty-five years to “the present.” Winchester “Winch” Young is a small time private detective (one character calls him a “nickel and dime private detective”) who spends most of his time following cheating spouses. He is also an active Mormon in a “non-Mormon” area who is twice divorced from the same woman. Winch and his ex-wife Tracy divorced in part because she is something of a “free spirit” while he is deeply committed to living his LDS values and covenants. Winch is assisted in his work by two friends: Woody, a mall security guard by day and a Native American activist by night, and a young barmaid named Brandy. Despite the fact that Winch is not well known and normally only handles “nickel and dime” cases, he is hired by Carla Fox, a nationally known romance novelist, to solve the twenty-five year old murder of her older sister Sarah who was killed in St. Augustine on spring break when she was seventeen. Before long Winch finds that his life has become very complicated. His ex-wife and a police dispatcher acquaintance try to seduce him and his client comes on to him. His client is being extorted. Someone tries to kill him. He becomes wanted for murder. And to top it all off his home teacher shows up unexpectedly. Can Winch save his life, his reputation, and his friends, solve the mystery, and keep his covenants intact? I promise you that you will enjoy reading every page of this book to find out.
“Redeeming the Dead” is a book by a Mormon and about a Mormon character but it is not a “Mormon” book. “Redeeming” is a book that can be enjoyed by any reader no matter how great or small or non-existent their connection to Mormonism. Brown includes just enough references to and about Winch’s Mormonism to allow Non-Mormon readers to understand why Winch behaves and reacts the way that he does, without overdoing it and boring readers already familiar with Mormonism. Along with working in threads of Mormon doctrine into the book, Brown also writes about a lot of interesting historical facts, both Mormon and non-Mormon. For instance, in a way that completely works with the story, Brown weaves into the plot references to LDS land holdings in Florida and interesting historical information about the history of the city of St. Augustine.
Just about everybody in “Redeeming the Dead” needs some redeeming in their lives. I cannot say what the individual reasons are without spoiling the plot, but nearly all of them do. Besides the “redeeming the dead” that is directly connected to the deceased Sarah and Detective Sharp, Winch, his ex-wife Tracy, his client Carla, his friend Woody, his nemesis Sheriff Deputy Renfro and several other characters need some “redeeming” in their lives. Brown is an excellent story teller who did a superb job of carving into every facet of this book its theme and title.
My favorite thing about “Redeeming the Dead” is that its plot and characters are far more real and believable than what I have been used to in most “Mormon” novels. The main complaint that I have about most Mormon fiction is that it is just too unrealistic. Yes, novels are fiction, and by nature, they are not real, I get that. But when fiction is set in the “real world” as opposed to “fantasy” or “science fiction” type worlds, for me, there needs to be a certain amount of believability to the characters and situations. I like stories that are filled with balanced, believable, multi-dimensional characters who have realistic strengths and weaknesses rather than stories with flat, one dimensional characters who are all good or all bad, even when those flat characters are designed that way on purpose to teach a lesson or to make a point.
In July of 1977, in a First Presidency message in the Ensign titled “The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” President Spencer W. Kimball challenged those Latter-day Saints with artistic abilities and interests to become among the best in their crafts in the world. He challenged them to find great, artistic ways to depict Latter-day Saints and their stories. In my mind, that challenge, especially in literature, has been largely unfulfilled. I feel that part of the reason that we Latter-day Saints have not yet lived up to President Kimball’s vision is that, as a society, we have a real problem with the depiction of evil in fiction. For whatever reason, as a culture, we Latter-day Saints seem to be easily offended by anything that we see as remotely “evil”. The main publishers of LDS fiction, most LDS authors, and the majority of booksellers that cater to LDS audiences have picked up on this and eschew any stories with remotely challenging characters or story lines. As an example, in 2002, Deseret Book refused to stock a book by famed Mormon author Richard Paul Evans titled “The Last Promise.” Some spoke out against Deseret Book for this choice, but many supported it. One such individual wrote a letter to the Deseret News defending Deseret Book’s decision that said:
“White is white; black is black. But gray has so many shades! How many drops of black can be added to the white paint before we say, ‘That’s enough! This is too gray!’ Hurrah for Deseret Book — not one drop of black.”
It seems to me that most Mormon authors, fearing this kind of reaction and banishment, write books where the “good” characters are unrealistically good and perfect and the “evil” are flat and completely unnuanced. This unrealistic expectation that good is all good and bad is all bad keeps LDS literature from becoming as great as it can be. It keeps it from reaching a wider, non-Mormon audience.
Orson Scott Card, the author of “Ender’s Game” and many other science fiction novels, discussed his concerns with this issue in a 1980 talk given at BYU titled “The Problem of Evil in Fiction.” Here are a few of the things that he had to say about the importance of depicting evil in good fiction:
“And if [there] is [evil in] life, how can a fiction writer honestly write without depicting evil in the lives of his characters?”
“The illusion of truth demands that there be evil, or his readers will cease believing in his characters and toss the book away…”
“Fiction is not an escape from reality. Fiction is simply another kind of reality, … Unlike life, it begins and ends; we can close the book and draw conclusions. It is often easier to learn from fiction than from life; …”
“Yet all of this depends on the reader’s willingness and ability to add himself to the novel or the story. The illusion of reality must be built up within the reader’s own mind. And those readers who lack the desire or the ability to join in the creative act cannot receive what the author is trying to give. That ability to share in the author’s creation is one that develops through practice…”
Card then goes on to explain that there is a difference between “Evil depicted in fiction. Evil advocated by fiction. [and] Evil enacted by fiction.” Card discusses the struggles in LDS culture to tell the difference between advocating for evil and merely depicting it, and encourages LDS authors and artists to arise to the challenge of finding realistic ways to depict the evil and challenges in life in their fiction.
That is a rather long soapbox that I was just on but I explained all of that to state this: I feel that in “Redeeming the Dead” Steven K. Brown has succeeded where so many other LDS writers have not. In “Redeeming the Dead” I feel that he has told a story and created characters that for me begin to fulfill the ideals laid out by President Kimball and Orson Scott Card. In Winchester Young Brown has created a great Mormon character who strives to be faithful to his covenants, even fretting about them to the point of becoming divorced from his wife, yet who is also a very complicated character. He is faced with realistic temptations and realistic problems and nearly succumbs to them. In most Mormon novels the outcome and the hero’s choices in relation to their religion are never really in doubt. Their temptations to sin are not realistic, the challenges to their testimonies are not genuine, so when they succeed and overcome, I do not care. I do not feel enlightened by what I have read because the “temptations” and religious challenges faced by the characters are nothing like what I have faced in my life. As I was reading “Redeeming the Dead” I found myself sincerely caring about Winch and his struggles because they were real enough and serious enough that I did wonder at times if he would make the “right” choice. His temptations were “real” enough that I could believe them.
For me that is what made “Redeeming” a great “Mormon” story; that is where Brown’s best succeeds in this book. He has created a real, vibrant character that readers can get behind and relate to. When Winch succeeds you cheer for him because success was in doubt. By creating a complicated character who overcomes real obstacles, temptations, and challenges, Brown has been far more true to President Kimball’s vision than those writers who create “safe” two dimensional characters in “inoffensive” books. This is because by being a “believable” character with both “black” and “white” aspects to his life, Winch demonstrates to non-Mormon readers how “real” Mormons try to use the teachings of the LDS gospel to overcome the challenges that they face. Safe “all white” characters in safe “not a drop of black” books just don’t do that.
The letter to the editor writer in the Deseret News may not like any drops of black or any shades of gray, but real life and real people have drops of black in them creating far more than fifty shades of gray. This makes it impossible, as Card points out, for most readers to relate to or learn from these “all white” stories and characters. Brown has crafted a novel that readers can “add themselves” too. The “illusion” and “desire” to “join in the creative act” are present in this book. In fact, for me, it was a real “page turner.” I do not say this often, but I truly could “not put it down” and I finished reading the entire book within a few hours of having received my copy.
I hope that Brown writes more stories. It would be fun to see Winchester Young become a regular character with his own series. It might be a lot harder for Brown to work in other LDS doctrines as themes. Murder mysteries about “Perfecting the Saints” and “Proclaiming the Gospel” might not be as fun or universal as “Redeeming the Dead” but still, it would be enjoyable to read more of the adventures of Winch and his friends. If you want a fun reading experience, if you want to support a new up and coming novelist, then go out and buy a copy of “Redeeming the Dead” today.