When I saw that the Tony Hillerman Prize, an award for mysteries set in the American Southwest, had gone to a novel set in 1930s Salt Lake City, I was thoroughly excited. I’m from Utah, lived in Salt Lake for almost 10 years, and although I’ve been transplanted in the East for over a decade now, I still like to read about the place where I grew up.
I’m also a bit of a history buff, and the early 20th century is one of my favorite eras. Many works of historical fiction are set in the big cities of this era–New York, L.A., Chicago–and many are set in America’s rural places, but secondary cities are rarely featured. Salt Lake City is a place that many people think they understand but most don’t, so it’s a great location in which to place a 1930s mystery.
Andrew Hunt’s City of Saints did not disappoint, using both place and time well to good effect. Hunt is an Ontario history professor, but like me, he’s a transplant from Utah. He originally wanted to write about a true crime case, the murder of socialite Dorothy Dexter Moormeister, but ultimately he couldn’t find quite enough information to do justice to the story, so he turn to fiction instead, changing some of the details of the case. Setting is not just window dressing in this book. Hunt uses the places and people of Salt Lake City to great effect, giving the reader a real sense of Utah in the 1930s. I got a kick out of familiar street names and even surnames that filled the book. Salt Lake City is not the place that many assume: most polygamy in Utah ended before statehood was granted in 1895, and railroads and mines brought people into the state who weren’t Mormon. While the LDS Church had (and still has) strong sociopolitical sway, Salt Lake wasn’t free of other influences–crime, nightlife, bootlegging–and key to this story, adultery and abortionists.
Hunt’s protagonist is Art Oveson, a Mormon lawman just beginning to make his place in the Sheriff’s Department. His partner, Roscoe Lund, is a much worldlier man who likes to bait Mormon colleagues with a steady stream of curses, smoking, and drink, all prohibited by the Mormon religion. When a wealthy doctor’s wife is found murdered, the two are drawn into a hidden world of affairs, bribes, and political maneuvering. Art is particularly thwarted by Sheriff Fred Cannon, who wants Art to report on the loyalty of colleagues and quickly pin the murder on any convenient suspect, ignoring other leads. Between characters, setting, and an unusual political landscape, Hunt establishes much that could be explored in further novels. I hope he will make this work into a series.
Book clubs could find enough in City of Saints to support a discussion, but as a facilitator, I would approach a book like this in a different way. It might be fun to have a meeting where readers each choose a book set in a place or milieu that is well known to them, and then discuss how well the author uses that setting to enhance the story. If your group lives in a place where fiction is frequently set, choose that as a common setting and get an even more direct comparison of how well sense of place is established.