City of Saints, by Andrew Hunt (Minotaur):
In late February 1930, the corpse of 32-year-old Dorothy Dexter Moormeister was discovered on a road near the western edge of Salt Lake City, Utah. She’d been run over repeatedly by a car, which left most of her bones crushed. Local police investigated. They questioned her much older husband, Dr. Frank Moormeister, a prosperous physician with a less public sideline: performing abortions for local prostitutes. They also quizzed a man who’d purportedly encouraged Dorothy to divorce her hubby and swindle him in the process, and followed up on bizarre rumors of the deceased’s philanderings, one of which implicated a Persian prince. Ultimately, though, the murder of this socialite was declared “unsolved.”
In City of Saints, Andrew Hunt--who was born in Salt Lake City but now teaches history in Ontario, Canada--uses the Moormeister homicide as the basis for a dramatic and elaborate mystery that, prior to its publication, won the 2011 Tony Hillerman Prize. In these pages we’re introduced to Salt Lake County Deputy Art Oveson, a 29-year-old husband and father, and the youngest member of a family of Mormon lawmen. He and his more rough-mannered partner, Roscoe Lund, are summoned on a chilly winter’s night to investigate the slaying of Helen Kent Pfalzgraf, the youthful and eye-catching wife of a wealthy, well-respected doctor, who has been run over repeatedly by somebody behind the wheel of her own Cadillac.
Oveson’s boss, Sheriff Fred Cannon--currently engaged in a “dirty” race to retain his job--wants this case wrapped up posthaste. He also wants Oveson to act as his “spy,” keeping an eye out for any mischief among the other Mormon deputies (one of them named Romney!) that might put Cannon in a bad light at voting time. But as Oveson and Lund pursue leads, they find no easy answers in Helen Pfalzgraf’s killing. Is there a connection, for instance, between her demise and the hit-and-run death of Dr. Pfalzgraf’s first wife more than two decades before? Could this latest tragedy be linked to the murder of an abortionist against whom Dr. Pfalzgraf had campaigned? And what truth might there be to talk of Mrs. Pfalzgraf having been engaged in extramarital affairs with a Hollywood star and a foreign prince she’d met during a European excursion?
Oveson can appear naïve at times, causing himself trouble. As this mystery unfolds, however, he shows that he’s smarter than many observers expect, and prepared to do whatever needs doing to ensure that something looking vaguely like justice is achieved in the end.
Historian Hunt expertly re-creates Depression-era Salt Lake City, without larding on excessive detail, and does an equally astute job of building a credible relationship between seeming opposites Oveson and Lund. The Utah capital isn’t a common setting for crime fiction (Robert Irvine’s old Moroni Traveler series may represent its best-known previous use), but if the Stetson-wearing Art Oveson and his creator can find new cases there as engaging as this first one, it might well be worth repeated literary visits in the future.
* * *Also worth looking up this week: Return of the Thin Man (Mysterious Press), edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett. It contains the screen stories for two Nick and Nora Charles mysteries that Dashiell Hammett concocted at Hollywood’s behest during the 1930s. Hammett’s only Nick and Nora novel, The Thin Man, had been published in 1934 and was quickly adapted by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) for the silver screen. Its handsome profits led MGM to ask for more material featuring those same bibulous crime-solvers. After considerable fuss (and more than a little imbibing of his own), Hammett finally produced After the Thin Man, which inspired a 1936 film of the same name, and Another Thin Man, the basis for the 1939 follow-up. His After the Thin Man treatment was previously published during the 1980s in The New Black Mask magazine, appearing in two parts--in issues five and six. However, the novella Another Thin Man might be offered here for public consumption for the first time. Although these stories show the same sort of humor and plotting skills Hammett brought to his original Thin Man novel, they were written specifically for film adaptation, so lack the familiar descriptive and binding material of most printed fiction. Still, they are excellent artifacts that should delight the author’s myriad fans.