Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Many crime novels do more than just tell the story of a crime, its investigation and its solution. They also address social topics or call attention to social problems. To show you what I mean, let’s take a closer look today at Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, the second in her Lena Jones series.
Jones is a private investigator who, together with her business partner Jimmy Sisiwan, owns Desert Investigations. As Desert Wives begins, Jones and Sisiwan have gone to rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from a polygamist sect. Her father Abel, who has returned to the sect after some time away, has agreed that she will marry the group’s leader Solomon Royal. Her mother Esther, who has since divorced Abel, wants Rebecca to be safe with her. The group lives in an isolated compound called Purity that straddles the border between Arizona and Utah. The going isn’t easy but Jones and Sisiwan find Rebecca and bring her back to the Arizona side of the border where her mother is waiting. The plan is for Esther to take Rebecca and start a new life away from Abel and Purity.
As she and Rebecca are leaving the compound, Jones sees that Royal has been shot and badly wounded, but there’s no time to do anything about it then. So when Rebecca is safe, Jones calls the police to announce the emergency. Once Rebecca is reunited with her mother, Jones thinks the case is over. Then she gets a call from Esther, who tells her that Royal has died and that she is now under investigation for murder. It’s very likely that Esther will be extradited to Utah to stand trial for a crime she says she didn’t commit. And she is well aware that Solomon Royal had a great deal of power, so that she doesn’t stand much of a chance for a fair hearing. If she loses, Rebecca will be sent back to Purity. So she begs Jones to go to Purity and investigate the murder. Jones agrees and works out a plan to go undercover as the wife of Saul Berkhauser, a disaffected group member whose financial situation has forced him to stay at Purity.
Under that guise, Jones goes to Purity and slowly learns that this group is hiding several dark and very, very ugly secrets. For example, the women of Purity are routinely abused, as are their children, and forced to marry against their will. There’s also the practice of marrying young girls off when they’re as young as thirteen, sometimes even younger, and child molestation is not infrequent. What’s more, there is so much intermarriage that there are a great many children with birth defects and other physical and mental problems. All of this makes Jones so furious and indignant that she can’t at first understand why the women of Purity don’t simply leave. She learns though that it’s not that simple. First, the women have access to very little money. Besides, most of them have several children, so that escaping with them would not be feasible. And few of Purity’s women would be willing to be permanently separated from their children. Finally, several of the women have been raised in Purity, or moved there when they were very young, so they are convinced that they are living ‘the way God wants them to live.’ Jones also discovers that the men are, in their way, just as trapped as the women. They’ve been required to sign over all of their wealth to the group, and few have outside sources of income. What’s worst (at least from my point of view, so feel free to differ with me if you do), local authorities are well aware of what goes on at Purity. But they do nothing about it and in fact, some even quietly support what the group believes. The more Jones looks into what’s really happening at Purity, the more dirty secrets she uncovers, and there aren’t many people to whom she can turn for help.
In fact Jones gets so distracted by what she learns at Purity that at times she finds it hard to focus on the murder she’s trying to solve. But in the end, she discovers who killed Solomon Royal and why.
This novel is as much an exposé of life in a polygamous sect as it is a crime novel. That element is one of the most powerful points about the book. On that score, it is not an easy book to read, particularly when one knows that Webb has ‘done her homework,’ so that this novel strikes one as authentic. The ugly truths about Purity are made all the more haunting because Webb does not fall into the trap of explicitness. Everything is starkly revealed, but it’s not done gratuitously. It’s also worth noting that Webb doesn’t preach (at least I didn’t feel preached at). Rather, the story simply shows what life is like in polygamous groups like Purity. And that makes the story all the more powerful.
Another very important element in the novel is the setting. Purity is located in the high desert ‘wild country’ between Arizona and Utah. It’s stark, beautiful in a wild way, and potentially quite treacherous, and Webb places the reader there clearly:
‘Sheer cliffs towered more than three thousand feet above the forested plateau below, where the Virgin River wound its way through red and white sandstone. Lush Ponderosa pine, sycamore, piñon and cottonwood covered the valley, complemented by scarlet plumes of Indian paintbrush and blue columbine.’
Although this is gorgeous country, it’s also rugged and adds a sense of real isolation to life at Purity.
The character of Lena Jones is also an interesting element in this novel. She faces several personal demons, including life as a foster child during which she was raped more than once. She also has to deal with nightmares stemming from her early childhood with her mother. So she’s become cynical and unhappy. But you really couldn’t say that she wallows in her past. She’s not an alcoholic nor does she fall into the trap of a self-destructive lifestyle. But she has been badly scarred. She is a strong female protagonist, so readers who do not like the scenario of the ‘helpless female’ will be pleased. She is outspoken, independent and sometimes speaks without thinking, but she’s not what you would call a ‘loose cannon.’ Her past has given her real sympathy for those in need and that makes the work of uncovering what’s going on at Purity all the more difficult for her. It’s not hard to be on her side as she tries to get past her own personal feelings and find out the truth.
The mystery itself is solved, and not by magic, but it’s not the central element of the novel. Still, the search for the truth adds to the already strong sense of tension and suspense that’s caused by the facts of life at Purity.
Desert Wives is a very difficult book to read given its subject matter. But the pace is brisk and the story is told from the viewpoint of a sympathetic protagonist. And it takes place against a starkly beautiful physical backdrop. But what’s your view? Have you read Desert Wives? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Want to read some other thoughts about the novel? Please check out this excellent review from Bernadette at Reactions to Reading and this excellent review from Maxine at Petrona. Both are blogs that richly deserve to be on any crime fiction lover’s blog roll.
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 3 December/Tuesday 4 December – March Violets – Philip Kerr
Monday 10 December/Tuesday 11 December – Maisie Dobbs – Jacqueline Winspear
Monday 17 December/Tuesday 18 December – Project Nirvana – Stefan Tegenfalk