Review: Latter-Day Cipher

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I stand shamelessly in line when any of the ladies from Novel Matters starts giving away books. When they stop, I will even resort to buying them myself. In the case of Latter-Day Cipher I managed to snag a signed copy.

This is a murder mystery with a heavily Mormon flavour, not too surprising seeing as Latayne C. Scott is a former hard-core Mormon converted to evangelical Christianity. I don't read a lot of murder mysteries, so I'm going to try to tread lightly in this review. I neither love nor hate the genre, but for a mystery to really appeal to me, it has to be more than a puzzle in words. I want much more of an experience when I read than that. And Latter-Day Cipher delivered.

We find out in the opening chapters that a prominent - and virulently anti-Mormon - member of Utah society has been murdered, and the body arranged in a bizarre and ritualistic fashion. Selonnah Zee, a Tennessee journalist who thought she was going to Utah on vacation to visit her news anchor cousin, gets called on to cover the case. Other murders and weird incidents follow, in each case accompanied by messages written in an obsolete, 18th-century Mormon alphabet. Selonnah finds herself researching the connections between the murders and former Mormon practices, much to the chagrin of her cousin, a convert to Mormonism who becomes the spokesman of the Mormon Church in regards to the murders. At the same time, many of the characters are in a state of spiritual flux, and their questioning is an important part of the story.

Scott, as a former Mormon herself, treats her characters with respect. While Mormon doctrines are questioned, the people are never belittled.

Three reasons you might like this book

1. A deft use of language, especially in descriptions. Scott's prose is often beautiful, and her eye for unusual but apt metaphors is superb. She tries a little too hard once or twice, but the vast majority of the time, the effect is enchanting.

2. You get an insider's glimpse into the Mormon world. It almost reads like a novel set in an exotic locale. Scott's expertise shines through here, and if you like discovering new cultures, you will be well-served.

3. Well-rounded characters who do not conform to facile stereotypes. This delighted me, personally. Selonnah is a good reporter, but you wouldn't think of calling her hard-bitten or driven. Her cousin, Roger, while fitting the stereotypical image of a news anchor (but don't they all?) has a lot of complex undercurrents going on, particularly in the relationship with his wife. The only woman described as beautiful is nonetheless big-boned and convinced of her own lack of charm. The delightfully named and supremely annoying Lugosi has more in common with Dwight from The Office than Count Dracula, and the man with the over-charged sex appeal is no womanizer. None of them can be summed up in one cute sentence.

Three reasons you might not like this book

1. The reveal of the killer's identity is done in a rather unorthodox, almost anti-climactic manner. Now, I don't read many mysteries, so maybe it wasn't that unusual, but I found it a bit odd. Seeing as I had just come to my own conclusions, it didn't irritate me, but the shift at that point from mystery to thriller didn't quite work for me.

2. You might not like so much space being devoted to Mormon beliefs, although their impact on the story is direct. Spirituality, both corporate and personal, is an important part of this story, and some readers might say it's excessive.

3. No romance or love interest for the main character. Sorry. On the other hand, the marriage relationships of several characters are immensely important, but Selonnah is in town to visit her cousin and cover a story, and that's what she does. Personally, I rather preferred it that way, but your mileage might vary.

Three sentences from page 33

Lugosi wheezed a welcome explanation for why she'd been summoned. "You always wanted to use your criminology background with your reporting, Miss Society Page." His breathing sounded like leaking fireplace bellows pumped painfully through a bunch of hollow cocktail stirrers.

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