“City of Saints” by Andrew Hunt (Minotaur, $24.99)
Salt Lake City in 1930 was a fast-growing town with big-city concerns, dominated by the large, striking divisions between the wealthy and the middle class, and between those who follow the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and those who are not Mormons. The rough-hewn countryside, both beautiful and unforgiving, shrinks as the city limits expand.
This Depression-era Utah background proves to be an evocative and mesmerizing setting for “City of Saints.” Andrew Hunt steeps his debut in the history of both Salt Lake City and nearby towns as it richly explores the people who settled there and the residents of the early 20th century. Hunt also explores how a person with a deep religious faith lives in an increasingly secular world. Hunt skillfully weaves all that and more, making “City of Saints” a first-class mystery.
The heart of “City of Saints” is Art Oveson, a young Salt Lake County deputy who also is a loving family man and a committed Mormon. Art is forever haunted by the still-unsolved murder of his father, a decorated policeman who was being groomed to be Salt Lake City’s police chief. Art is often overshadowed by his brothers, each of whom has risen in various law enforcement agencies. Art and his foul-mouthed partner Roscoe Lund become involved with the high-profile murder investigation of Helen Pfalzgraf, the young wife of the area’s most prominent and politically connected doctor. The case takes Art and Roscoe into some of the city’s most prominent homes and into back alleys as they learn surprising, dark secrets about Salt Lake City. The two also must navigate around the unscrupulous sheriff, who is running for re-election.
Hunt, himself a history professor, creates a highly believable, three-dimensional hero in Art, whose religious beliefs require he be concerned with the poor and the exploited. He and Roscoe have an uneasy relationship until Art realizes that he sometimes needs his partner’s rage to fight crime.
“City of Saints,” a local nickname for Salt Lake City, is the fourth novel to win the Tony Hillerman Prize designed to find unpublished authors whose novels are set in the Southwest. The prize has garnered a reputation for introducing excellent authors, such as Hunt, whose debut respects the memory of the late Hillerman, who died in 2008.