review – Salamander

The Salamander LetterTwenty-five years ago this month, Salt Lake City was rocked by three pipe bombs that took the lives of two innocent victims and also injured a third person, a well-known Mormon rare book and documents dealer named Mark W. Hofmann. First thought to be a third victim, Hofmann was soon rumored to be a suspect in the bombings. The story that slowly unfolded became one of the most intriguing, mysterious, and bizarre tales in Utah’s already colorful history.

It took two veteran writers, Linda Sillitoe (recently deceased) and Allen Roberts, to sort out and unravel the compelling but complex story and tell it in an interesting and understandable way for a lay audience. Sillitoe, a long-time journalist and author, had covered the story for the local newspaper, the Deseret News, while Roberts was an award-winning architect with years of writing and editing Mormon history and studies under his belt. Complementing the engaging narrative in the book is an appendix containing forensic documents examiner, George J. Throckmorton’s, expert analysis of documents forged by Hofmann.

The publisher aptly sums up the result of the authors’ determined efforts to produce the book: “Drawing from thousands of pages of police reports, court documents, interviews, letters, and diaries, Sillitoe’s and Roberts’s narrative cuts through the complexities of this famous crime investigation to deliver a gripping, Capote-esque tale. They embrace the details but lay them out systematically as seen through the eyes of the detectives, victims, and the perpetrator.”

Attempting to be as fair and balanced as possible, the authors examine and explain with enough detail to inform but not to confuse, the many crucial elements that constituted the Mark Hofmann case. They set the stage by first narrating the initial events of the bombings, gradually introducing the large and varied cast of characters in the unfolding story, but focusing on Hofmann and other key players. Putting Hofmann under the microscope, the authors give a first-rate rendering of his background, personality, and apparent motives for the heinous crimes he committed. So that readers will understand the religious context, Sillitoe and Roberts present the backdrop of Mormon history and theology where needed and thoroughly explore the LDS Church’s involvement in the case. They focus much-needed attention on the documents Hofmann created and, following the enormous amount of money that went through his hands, they examine the many transactions that Hofmann and others conducted. The authors thoroughly treat the investigation and the legal aspects of the case as both sides prepared for a trial that never took place (a plea bargain was reached, precluding an expected lengthy and expensive trial). By the time one finishes the book, he has a real grasp of the story. As a participant in some of the key events depicted in the book, I can attest that the authors worked hard to be thorough, accurate and fair and that they succeeded in writing one of the best and most important accounts of this story that deeply affected so many lives.

Salamander was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and the number one bestselling book in the Intermountain West for a year after its publication. It received wide acclaim and positive reviews. These are a few of the many glowing comments from reviewers: “Impressive” (New York Times), “well-balanced” (Washington Post), “compelling and fast-paced” (Milwaukee Journal), and “dramatic and spell-binding” (Bookman’s Weekly).

Harold Schindler called it “the most complete treatment.” Carma Wadley wrote in the Deseret News that “this book probably comes as close to getting inside Hofmann’s head and to putting the whole complex story together as completely as it is possible.”

                                                                                                           —Curt Bench, October 2010