Reviews – The Angel Acronym: A Mystery Introducing Toom Taggart
Edwards offers a fresh take on the bibliomystery with this debut effort, set at the Independence, Mo., headquarters of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Toom Taggart, a coffee-swigging, cynical historian, suspects foul play when one of his colleagues turns up dead in the church archives. Although denominational officials and police treat the death as an ill-timed heart attack or stroke, Toom finds reasons to believe that the deceased was actually poisoned—but why, and by whom? Edwards explores what’s at stake in ecclesiastical history by positing that a newly discovered document showing the prophet Joseph Smith to be a charlatan might have been enough to push one of Toom’s coworkers to murder. It’s not a particularly original plot, and the identity of the killer is never really in question, but the iconoclastic Toom is a deeply likable protagonist. Along the way, Edwards serves up some interesting and even profound thoughts on faith, the nature of belief, the power of knowledge, and the psychological effect of killing on a murderer. The book’s dry, wry humor occasionally goes over the top with unnecessary authorial asides, but is mostly right on the money. Edwards offers particularly cogent and stinging indictments of ecclesiastical bureaucracy in all its pencil-pushing banality. While the novel will be most appreciated by RLDS and LDS folks who understand the many unexplained insider terms, others will simply be hooked by the characters.
Journal of Mormon History
Paul Edwards, a former president of the Mormon History Association and a genial contributor to the good relationships developed within this group between LDS and RLDS (now Community of Christ) members, turned to a life of crime with suspicious haste after retiring as head of the Temple School. This murder mystery takes place within the Community of Christ Temple precincts in Independence and features a bearded, coffee-drinking, philosopher-bureaucrat named Toom Taggart. However, Edwards begins by warning the reader: “While there is such a place as Independence, Missouri, containing various buildings that may seem familiar to the reader, any resemblance to persons, procedures, pieces of paper, policies, and plots, living or dead, is purely coincidental—especially the character of Toom Taggart” (5).
Taggart arrives at work one morning to find the church archivist being wheeled out in a body bag, the victim of what must have been an unfortunate accident with a poisonous cleaning substance while he was working late the night before. However, the document engrossing his attention was Frederick M. Smith’s “supreme directional control,” about which there was virtually nothing left to study. Furthermore, the archivist did not have a key to the lab where his body was found. And the First Presidency’s fix-it man, Louis T. Cannon (who is never nicknamed “Loose”), becomes singularly pressing in urging Taggart to stop asking questions about it, even as Taggart is adding more names, motives, means, and opportunities to his matrix for murder. He is also simultaneously not writing a book on angels, a topic assigned by the Presiding Bishop, an engaging subplot that reveals more of the labyrinthine ways of official bureaucracies.
MHA members will be relived to know that Ron Romig, the real Community of Christ Archivist, is alive and well and working away as usual. The larger cast of characters includes a lapsed RLDS detective, a smart and pretty woman attorney for the church, Taggart’s equally smart and efficient secretary, Myrmida (an in-joke; Myrmida is Edwards’s mother’s middle name), a raging liberal historian from Graceland University (who bears no resemblance whatsoever to another former MHA president, Bill Russell), a gangly waiter who refuses to collaborate in Taggart’s corruption by pouring him a cup of coffee, a strangely agitated Church Historian (definitely not Mark Scherer), and a picture-perfect church spokeswoman.
The plot unfurls from an 1829 forgery (fictional) of a Book of Mormon section being planned by Palmyra’s ne’er-do-wells, one of whom is based very loosely on Abner Cole. The perpetrator dies in an accident after hiding the document in a hidden drawer in a pie safe, whence it makes its way to Nauvoo, Ind. Here, the RLDS Church Historian accidentally discovers it after a scene that wittily reconstructs the intense but subterranean competition between the guides in the two churches:
Hastings [Church Historian] had returned on Friday from Nauvoo, where he was picking up five interns who were helping with an archaeological dig and learning to be guides at the RLDS sites. They were awestruck and cocky at the same time, sure that they and they alone understood the intricacies of the early Mormon community. They were exceedingly cordial to the studiously sweet Utah missionaries with whom they ran the cooperative project, but they secretly harbored ecumenical issues, and Hastings would consider it a divine dispensation if he could get them out of town before there was trouble.
… He blended in with a group of camera-bedecked Bountifulites from Utah. Mason Macomb, one of the LDS guides at the LDS Heber C. Kimball house, was beaming avuncularly as two of the interns held forth. By mutual consent, both sets of guides avoided the dread subject of polygamy, even in the very house of the much-married Kimball. Cordiality was all but oozing from the walls.
As the gushing group wafted up the stairs with Macomb where another RLDS intern awaited, Ralph lingered to nod approvingly to Betty Myers. She had just delivered a charming lecture on cooking in the 1840s and had unleashed a firestorm of flashbulbs from the Bountifulites. She had told them in hushed tones that the cherrywood pie safe dated from the time of Joseph Smith and was actually from Palmyra. The pie safe could not have been more liberally photographed if it had been made with wood from the Sacred Grove (14-15).
Irreantum (Interview with the author)
Paul Edwards has a unique resume: descendant of Joseph Smith; a long publication list of philosophical, historical, and educational works; a career navigating first the shark-inhabited waters of a religious university and then in the central administration of its sponsoring religion (the Community of Christ, headquartered in Independence, Missouri); and a legendary reputation for deft wit. It is only logical, then, that as soon as he retired as head of the RLDS Church’s Temple School, he turned immediately to a life of crime. Scheduled by Signature Books for release in January 2003, The Angel Acronym is his first murder mystery, although with his son Grey he has co-authored three novels under their shared middle name and last name: Madison Edwards. Paul, a veteran of the Korean War, is also director of the Center for the Study of the Korean War, which maintains an active program of symposia, publications, records and artifacts collecting, and education. He has published twenty-nine works: thirteen on religion and philosophy related to the Community of Christ and the Latter-day Saint movement (including Ethics: The Possibility of Moral Choice and Preface to Faith); eight on the Korean War (including The Korean War: A Documentary History); a book of poetry (Echo on the Ice); a book on poetry from the Korean War (The Hermit Kingdom); a Guide to Films of the Korean War; two books of essays (The Poetics of Place and To Acknowledge a War); and three novels: Termination Dust, The Brothers Crusoe, and Cinnamon and Old Toast.
“Getting The Angel Acronym was a case of love at first sight,” said Signature Books editor Lavina Fielding Anderson. “One of our directors, who is a personal friend of Paul Edwards, came into the office, eyes all alight, and said, ‘I’ve just read the best murder mystery I’ve bumped into for ten years. We’ve got to publish it.’ Everyone in the office who picked up the manuscript became an immediate convert. We had people walking into other people’s offices saying, ‘Listen to this!’ and chuckling over their favorite passages—usually a brilliant caricature of a dazzlingly idiotic bureaucratism.”
Anderson writes: “A philosopher by training and taste, Edwards has a ferocious eye for cultural incongruities, so when he’s writing Mormon crime fiction, he can skewer both the LDS and RLDS churches so deftly you have to check for blood. In addition to being very, very funny (his protagonist, Toom Taggart, collects titles by inadvertently appropriate authors–like Voluntary Euthanasia by Barbara Smoker), this mystery weaves together ultimate questions about how faith functions in human life, the limitations of institutions, the limitations of logic, and the potentialities of love. There’s no question that crime fiction is a major popular genre and Signature, which has long published distinguished Mormon serious fiction, has been looking for the right door opener into this new fictional field. Edwards’s Toom Taggart series is based on the proposition that every major religious sacrament or event has the potential to turn violent. This novel features delicious writing, an irresistible protagonist, suspense, a faintly sinister figure behind the First Presidency, a brainy and pretty lady lawyer who acts as Taggart’s sidekick and almost-romantic interest, and above all, the looming cat-and-mouse chase between a murderous mind and a logical one. The next book in the Toom Taggart series, Murder by Sacrament, is already in manuscript form.”
How would you introduce this novel to a chatty stranger sitting next to you on an airplane?
“I would describe The Angel Acronym as an interesting and spirited murder mystery based on events unique to the Mormon movement and the Community of Christ and suggesting some of the deep advantages and glaring drawbacks of Mormonism and the institutional church. It is a good story with believable characters.”
What are your personal motives and goals behind the novel?
“I first considered writing a murder mystery dealing with the Community of Christ—and indirectly the Latter-day Saints—right after I retired from several years working within the system. I was considering an intellectual history of the movement but decided that it would be a very short book and that no one would read it. If I wanted to consider some of the more interesting social and economic aspects of the movement, then I needed to do something that would entertain the reader and allow the reader to consider some commentary about the movement without seeing it as a threat. The murder mystery seemed an appropriate way to do it. Once I got started, I was having so much fun I did not want to stop.”
What audience(s) are you aiming for and what effects do you hope to have on them? How do you imagine your ideal reader?
“In writing the mystery, I anticipated an audience made up of members of the Mormon movement in all its variations, as well as those who simply liked mysteries. My experience has been that mysteries are more fun to read if they are relating to something I know about. Thus, I wanted to entertain the reader with a story based on, and in, an environment they knew and among persons they respected. At the same time I was interested in taking a human, and sometimes humorous, look at the organization of churches. Fiction is the exaggeration and extension of what normally is unseen or unconsidered. The mystery allows the author to experiment with deep emotions without being emotional.”
How do you expect the novel to be received by mainstream LDS readers? LDS critics? LDS literary academics?
“I think the mystery will be well received by the mainstream of the LDS and RLDS communities. The murder mystery is an easy genre to mold around specific events and ideas. I think most readers will identify with the situation and empathize with the characters. So, while the genre is not the sort that excites many literary academics, if they will read it I think they will discover that it contains some excellent and insightful commentary about the common Mormon heritage.”
Most Irreantum readers are affiliated with the LDS church. Can you give us an overview of Community of Christ literature and how your novel fits into that tradition?
“The Community of Christ has a good but limited literary tradition. There are persons within the movement that have written, some of them widely, but there has been little to be considered literature or poetry. The work available has, primarily, been stories for children and considerations of faith and testimony. This is, I believe, the first contemporary attempt at a mystery focused on today’s church that deals with modern and contemporary issues. In a very significant way, it is hard for the members of the Community of Christ to consider themselves involved in the “outside” or larger world enough to find its people engaged in life. They are not so much bigger than life as they are “other” to the daily human existence. The movement always seems disquieted to find its people in the mainstream. Until that is less true, there will not be a lot of literary efforts.”
How much of the story is based on research? How much on imagination? How much on autobiography?
“Let me be quick to say that this is just a story, The places mentioned, the various roles played at church headquarters, and the bureaucratic environment is public knowledge. And much of what is written about emerges from my own background. So in that sense it is autobiographical. But, I repeat, it is only a story. No characters and no ideas are reflecting living persons or immediate problems. The conditions have been adjusted to meet the needs of the story. In this case there was not a lot of research necessary other than working out methods by which to commit a murder. But in the most important sense, it is a work of imagination.”
Tell us about your writing process for this novel: how often you wrote, how you balanced it with other things, any rituals or conditions you required for a good writing session, and perhaps some comments about how you used notes, outlines, research, multiple drafts, et cetera.
“I have been engaged in writing most of my adult life. My habit is to get up early, go somewhere and get coffee and a light breakfast, and write at the table for about an hour or an hour and a half. I do that four to five days a week. The rest of the day I go about my other duties: work at the Center for the Study of the Korean War, domestic activities, church activities, research and study. At this rate I write about fifteen pages a week. Some days I edit, or rewrite, or read and decide to tear it all to pieces. When I am writing, it is necessary tor me to avoid places that are too quiet. I have never been very good at writing at a library. It is best to be somewhere where there are people and noise, but where none of it is directed at me. If the telephone rings, I know it is not one of my children.
“When I am writing nonfiction, I try to become as familiar as I can with the information and read and re-read notes that are the results of my research. Then I try to write the total piece as quickly as I can. After that I go back, and back, and back. In most cases, I will re-write a piece ten times or more before submitting it to an editor. And, once that is done, I pay attention to what editors suggest. I believe that editors are very significant members of the writing team and an author should listen to them.”
What were the most challenging aspects of writing this novel? What were the most difficult choices you had to make? On the other hand, what elements came easiest?
“In this particular case, the most difficult thing about writing the mystery was that I was trying to reach a balance between the story I wanted to tell and the need to consider the feelings and attitudes of those I knew would be its audience. I am not sure how successful I have been. But I have made considerable effort to raise some questions in order to make the reader think about them but not turn them off or cause them to be offended.
“A minor trouble was caused by the long-term habit of being able to explain things in a footnote. It is often more difficult to write in the explanation than it is, as in academic works, to simply refer to some authority.”
What other books and authors influenced you in writing this novel?
“I have been greatly influenced by the novels of Colin Wilson more than anything. Wilson writes in a manner that keeps the reader interested while informing them of something or other. I have tried to do that. Of course, as any writer knows, the primary requirement for writing is that you read, and I have been reading mysteries most of my life. I am particularly fond of Raymond Chandler, Hillary Waugh, Ellery Queen (I guess I am showing my age), and the more contemporary author James Lee Burke.”
Did you write with a potential feature film in mind? What do you think of that prospect?
“It never occurred to me that the film industry would be interested in a murder mystery of this sort. I guess I never considered a film. Of course, that would be a lot of fun, particularly if I were allowed to pick my actors. In my wildest dreams I can see Holly Hunter as the heroine Marie, Tom Selleck as the bishop’s agent, and, of course, Sean Connery as Toom Taggart, the hero.”
What have you learned about marketing yourself as a writer and approaching agents or editors? Where did you send this novel for consideration and what kinds of responses did you get? How did you end up at Signature and what has working with them been like?
“In the last three decades, I have learned a great deal about marketing non-fiction and have developed a proposal style that includes a full description of what I can do to help sell whatever I am offering. In most cases it is necessary to know the audience that the publishers seek to reach and to be sure that what you offer lies within the publisher’s part of the market. I have published enough now that I usually work with publishers who know my work and who, if the topic is right, will give me prime consideration.
“Fiction is much harder for a variety of reasons. One is the strong competition for the publisher’s attention. Another is the large number of sales necessary these days to make publishers happy. They are looking for works that will sell in the tens of thousands, and many good manuscripts can never expect that sort of distribution. I have never used an agent, primarily because I never found an agent who was willing to take a chance on me and, less important but significant, because I was not willing to share the small income available from non-fiction with another person.
“In this case I approached Signature because I knew the people there—I have a great deal of respect for what they do and for the people involved in what they are doing—and I thought this particular topic might be of interest to them. I made one other effort to locate a publisher and got an offer, but since Signature was interested I much preferred to work with them.
Working with Signature is always a good experience. The one with whom I have had the most contact is my editor Lavina Anderson. She is a wonderful editor, makes excellent suggestions, and can turn the most difficult sentence into reasonable English. Certainly Tom Kimball has been good to work with on the marketing. In this particular case, since I have so many contacts with the Community of Christ, I can be of considerable value in supporting sales in the midwest and among members of that organization.”
What early experiences and influences shaped you to be a writer? How did you learn the craft? Trace for us how your writing inclination developed and how you first became a published writer.
“It sounds like a cliché, but I have always wanted to be a writer. I remember the construction of my first piece of fiction, somewhere around my seventh year. The plot of that work was to later appear in a book I co-authored with my son called The Brothers Crusoe (Pelsmith-Monroe, 2001). Both my mother and father were published authors in their respective fields of English literature and religion. Writing was in the air in our house. At my mother’s insistence I have kept a journal since my sixteenth birthday and write in it five or six times a week. Over the years I have taken advantage of college writing classes and, it seems, hundreds of workshops, one-on-one sessions with established authors, and the crooked path of trial and error. I do not know how to explain it, but I write much differently when I am doing nonfiction. Formal writing is more stilted, with longer sentences, and—I am told—is hard to read. Fiction comes easier and is, I hope, easier to read. Dialogue seems to come easier since I have been involved in some screen-writing. 1 love it—1 can’t think of anything that I would rather do. I write because 1 must.”
What’s ahead for you? What are you working on now, and what will you turn to next?
“I have agreed with Signature to submit two more manuscripts in the series of Toom Taggart murders. Hopefully they will find them adequate and publish them in the next couple of years. Both are written—that is, I have the quick first draft—and the long process of re-writing is in order. I just finished a book for Scarecrow Press called The Korean War: A Historical Dictionary, to be published after the first of the year. Currently my creative efforts are on a mystery co-authored with my son, called Murder Painted Over. At the moment we have not approached a publisher.
“Finally, let me say that I believe it is in the best interests of the Mormon movement to encourage such books as The Angel Acronym. Not that mine is of any vast value, but because works like that provide an opportunity to discuss and to consider things that might otherwise be hard to produce. I am grateful to Signature Books for helping me accomplish this. Besides, authors love to be published.”
Irreantum, Jeffrey Needle
The copy I’m reviewing is an advanced uncorrected proof. As such, there is no guarantee that referenced page numbers will match the official release. Also, please note that this book is centered in the RLDS Church tradition. I’m aware that they are now familiarly known as the Community of Christ, but this old reviewer has not yet caught up with the change. My mind and my fingers still say “RLDS.” I trust forgiveness is available.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
I paraphrase: “Can anything predictable come out of Signature Books?” With each new release, this influential publisher establishes itself as a vital player in the pantheon of Mormon studies. One may try to pigeonhole Signature Books, but then one is likely to be surprised at the variety of fiction and non-fiction titles that come from its presses.
The present volume, The Angel Acronym, subtitled “A Mystery Introducing Toom Taggart,” was a complete surprise to me. Generally when opening a book, I can at least approach an idea of what the book is about. Here we have a thoroughly entertaining and mildly discomfiting work of fiction, self-described as a mystery novel but ultimately subsuming the fictional mystery in the larger mystery of religion, faith, and organizational behavior.
Some readers should prepare themselves to dislike this book. Edwards makes no effort to resolve many of the questions he asks. He abandons the western approach of solution-finding by selecting the best fit and instead sees questions, especially those posed in the areas of faith, history, and human relationships, as answers in themselves, resolvable only as one accommodates the reality of no resolution at all.
Linear thinking goes by the wayside; binary approaches to religion must step aside. Toom Taggart, a most unlikely protagonist in a world of mystery and religiosity, finds himself involved in a death at RLDS world headquarters, and thus begins a tale that challenges and entertains the reader.
The story begins in Palmyra in 1829 at the home of a fellow named Owen. No friend to the prophet or to the Mormons, Owen has cooked up a plot to embarrass Joseph. Owen is relating to some friends his fiendish plot—he has successfully forged several pages of the Book of Mormon, yet to be published by Grandin Press, and several letters purportedly between Joseph and Hyrum Smith, admitting that the Book of Mormon is a fraud. Owen planned to have the fake pages slipped into the handwritten corpus then awaiting publication at the Grandin plant, pages identical to Joseph’s dictation with the exception that a few words had been altered, causing the initial letters of the words, the acronym, to spell out “Angel Moroni.” After publication, Owen can claim that Joseph never noticed the switch and thus embarrass the Smiths. Owen hides the forgeries in a piece of furniture built by his father, with a secret drawer well hidden from the casual observer.
But the plan never comes to pass. Running an errand for his wife later that night and venturing into a fierce storm, Owen is killed. The pages remain in the secret drawer. Fast forward to today. Several pieces of authentic Palmyra furniture are on display, including Owen’s piece with the secret drawer. Ralph Hastings, church archivist for the RLDS Church, accidentally allows the piece to drop. The secret drawer pops open and there, to his amazement, are these documents. They look authentic. But if they are, then all is lost. The church is a fraud. Joseph Smith was a fraud. The Book of Mormon is a fraud. Etc., etc., etc.
What do to? Ralph approaches his boss, James Pincer, church historian for the RLDS Church, with the problem. Pincer wants him to keep quiet about the whole affair. Ralph doesn’t know what to do. And then, one night Ralph enters a facility maintained by the church and equipped to investigate the authenticity of documents. He wants to know whether they’re fraudulent or not. The next morning, Ralph is found dead in that facility.
The church hierarchy is very quick to pronounce the death an accident. But Toom doesn’t buy it.
And it isn’t so much that there are clues in evidence but that Toom doesn’t think anything can be quite that simple. Toom’s mind works in ways not entirely compatible with his Covey-trained co-workers. They want nothing more than for him to be still, to not make waves. Of course, if that were to happen, we would have no book. (And yes. Covey is mentioned by name and his seminars are sent into the stratosphere as meaningless exercises attended by boring bureaucrats.)
How can Toom continue his investigation without losing his job? Should he follow his feelings against the wishes of the brethren? A real dilemma. Edwards takes the rest of the book working out such problems, exploring the many options we all face as we confront life’s challenges.
Now, acknowledging that the author of a book has little, if any, input into the typesetting and manufacture of a book, I’m not clear exactly where the joke of the book begins. Immediately following the opening Palmyra narrative, we have duplicated for us the two pages of the Book of Mormon that old Owen forged and planned to substitute for the authentic pages. And what nice pages they are! Spelled nicely, punctuation, paragraphs, the whole thing.
Is this what author Edwards intended? If so, then perhaps here is where the joke begins. How could anyone not spot such an orderly presentation of the Book of Mormon as a forgery? I’m no genius, but even I know that there was no paragraphing, etc. And we are to believe that Owen thought that Grandin wouldn’t notice and, worse, that both the church archivist and the church historian of the RLDS Church would be incapable of spotting the forgery.
If, however, the author didn’t realize this was how Signature would present the forgeries, then maybe we have to wait a while for the joke to begin.
But not long. Consider this early citation, where we learn of Toom’s own attitude toward his job:
President Olympia’s predecessor, the last of the Smiths, called him a word spinner. “We need someone for whom language is a friend,” the tall gray eminence had said, beaming blindingly. It meant that Toom was on call, sometimes on short notice, to provide justifications for whatever irrational expectations were passed off as church policy. He was, by his own identification, a cranial prostitute. He was pretty good at it.
Like most prostitutes, he was in business because he needed a job. (8)
If this all sounds fairly cynical, then you’ve caught the spirit of the book in toto. And since it was penned by a former church archivist, one has to wonder how true to life the characterizations are. Some of the discussions, the barbs, are so broad that it’s easy to see where Edwards is just flexing his funny bone. But some of the observations hit very close to home. Here Toom is discussing the role of history, reflecting on the tendency of the church to dismiss those aspects of history that don’t perpetuate the myth:
“History! Look at what we’re doing to our history. Here’s Williams spending a whole chapter on polygamy in Nauvoo. There’s Ralph Hastings and his dissertation on environmental influences on Joseph Smith, thinking that information is the same as understanding. That ‘tell everything you know’ crap is killing us. There’s nothing left worth remembering. The myths are what have kept us alive as a church and we’re sterilizing them as if they were bacteria.” Pincer’s face was scarlet with intensity. (91)
Another character who plays an important role is Marie, an attorney, who is the confidante of Toom and a potential love interest. Only one hitch—Toom is married. His wife was injured in an accident and currently resides at a permanent-care home. She cannot communicate and is, as the rude phrase goes, a vegetable. But both Toom and Marie understand that their relationship cannot go beyond platonic friendship. Too bad—they make a great couple.
Some of the best reflections take place when Toom and Marie are by themselves. As the plot of the book progresses, and as it becomes clear that poor Ralph was actually murdered, both Toom and Marie continue to explore their own relationship and what meaning, if any, remains in their involvement in the church and in religion at all. The church’s recalcitrance in the death of the archivist provides many opportunities for Toom and Marie to explore their place in the cosmos. In the following, Toom speaks first, and then Marie:
“I think we’ve been caught believing in a kind of absolute God whose primary ability seems to be avoiding detection, denying responsibility, and harming the hell out of philosophy majors.” [. . .]
“I’m not a philosophy major any longer. [. . .] I’m a hard-working woman who has to defend the church’s idiocies against its own people. The only justification I have for what I do is the lightness of the larger cause I serve. If that cause is misdirected, then I have no legitimacy for what I do.” (120)
A fellow named Cannon is—well, I’m not quite sure, kind of like an enforcer for the presidency. They want Toom to stop investigating the death of the archivist, Cannon sees to it that it’s done. The presidency wants Toom to write a book, Cannon makes sure it gets written. You get the idea. At one point, Cannon is tiring of all the striving, all the pressure. He asks Toom, “Why does it all seem so desperate? Why are there so many power plays?” To which Toom answers, with a resounding thud, “I think the politics are so desperate because the outcome is so meaningless” (184).
And here, I think, the book pivots. For Toom, meaning is everything. And if what he’s doing is ultimately meaningless, then he has permission to continue his work, so long as he doesn’t take it seriously.
Is this the source of Edwards’s angst? Has he lost a sense of meaning in the work he did and may be doing today? Is this mystery novel really about the meaning of one’s life, one’s chosen vocation, and the institutions for which we strive?
This is from the blurb on Signature’s website:
Paul Edwards is the former vice-president of Graceland University and former director of the RLDS Temple School, currently director of Graceland’s Center for the Study of the Korean War. He has served as president of both the John Whitmer Historical Association and Mormon History Association. His Ph.D. is from St. Andrews University in Scotland, and he has also studied at Cambridge, Claremont, and Oklahoma universities. The author of many books (see Preface to Faith, for example), this is his first mystery.
Much like An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, also published by Signature Books, The Angel Acronym is written by someone who has been inside the workings of his church and writes with a certain authority. But unlike the Origins book, the present volume uses fiction as the vehicle to bring his ideas to the fore. And he does this very, very well.
If you’re looking for neat solutions to all the problems in this book, forget it. But maybe, just maybe, that’s the whole point. The exercise of being human, of being a spiritual being, isn’t just about finding answers but about the process of finding one’s place in the universe. Is God really in charge? Does He really take an active interest in how the church conducts its business? If so, then why is the whole thing so messed up?
Such questions are too often asked, and answered, within the confines of ecclesiastical officialdom. Edwards suggests that, perhaps, the institutions intended to enable may become a stumbling block, a wall through which one must pass before coming to terms with one’s own confusions.
The Angel Acronym is a mystery novel, but it’s much more. In fact, the murder is incidental to the deeper mysteries explored in its pages. I found myself more interested in the resolution of Toom’s life problems than in finding who the murderer was.
This is a terrific book that will likely unsettle the brethren in Independence. That’s okay. After all, there must needs be opposition in all things. Without strain there is no growth. Without questions there can be no understanding. I’m grateful that Signature has released this title. I predict it will be the topic of conversation for a long time to come.
Jeff Needle lives in Southern California with his books and his computer and spends far too much time reading. He won the 2001 AML award in criticism, and his. reviews have appeared in Irreantum and on AML-List. A self-described Jewish Gentile, he remains on the outskirts of Zion, despite the elders’ best efforts to get him under the water.
Booklist, John Mort
In Paul Edwards’s Angel Acronym, an archivist at the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) headquartered in Independence, Missouri, discovers some unsettling correspondence. It seems to prove that Joseph Smith’s revelations in Palmyra, leading to the Book of Mormon, were a fraud. Such knowledge is enough to get the archivist murdered, though at first his death seems accidental. Toom Taggart, editor of the church’s press, becomes the sleuth ferreting out the truth in this witty exercise that purports to be the first in a series. Many of Toom’s endless intellectual jokes fly between Independence and the better-known Mormonism found in Salt Lake City. In fact, publication by Signature, a Mormon press from Utah, is a kind of prank in itself, particularly since Edwards used to work in Independence. His droll insider’s view may not have much resonance for Baptists but should evoke chuckles from Saints regardless of their stake.
Sunstone, Craig L. Foster
Palmyra, 1829. What begins as a joke to discredit Joseph Smith goes awry with the accidental death of Abner Cole, frontier newspaperman and would-be practical joker, who takes to his shadowy grave the secret to the “angel acronym.” The incriminating documents created to humiliate Joseph Smith and discredit the Book of Mormon do not come to light again for more than a century and a half, but this time, the joke turns deadly.
The hero of Paul Edwards’s mystery novel is Toom Taggart, a coffee-drinking, authority-questioning, doctrinally skeptical curmudgeon who both laughs at, and chafes under, the ecclesiastical eccentricities and subtle nuances of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now renamed the Community of Christ). Taggart is administrator of the church’s Education Office, lay historian, and resident intellectual. In the process of solving an unholy murder committed because of a holy debate over the veracity of the angel acronym, Taggart also becomes our unofficial guide into the complex heart of this faith tradition.
A good mystery novel is more than just a cut-and-dried whodunit. It operates on several levels. The first level, obviously, is the mystery itself. The other levels examine and wrestle with the complexities of human nature—our emotions, hopes, fears, loves found and lost—good and evil, and even existence itself.
One of the best examples of a writer who is able to delve into these deeper levels is Ellis Peters. Her “Brother Cadfael” mysteries are well known for the imagery and character development she lovingly weaves into the complex fabric of her stories. Her works are not only entertaining mysteries but glimpses of people, places, and ways of life. Of her work and her interest in developing place as a character in her stories, Peters once said that “in the course of creation, the blood gets into the ink, and sets in motion a heartbeat and a circulation that bring the land to life.”
Edwards’s novel hints that he may one day be able to accomplish something similar, for in this first novel, he shows a remarkable ability to capture such colors and depth. His depiction of the underlying tension and current of questions in the RLDS church’s recent shifts and evolving understandings of its history and doctrines alone make Angle Acronym a fascinating read. In one musing, Taggart tellingly states:
There’s no passion in the church. Without passion, the acts become the reason for acting, and in time, the media becomes the message. We’re so busy balancing the bottom line we fail to remember that our only excuse for being a church is to expand the passion. I am not sure where it went. I suspect it’s no longer possible for an intelligent human being to believe the stories we tell each other (121).
Edwards has lovingly crafted some of his characters, especially Toom Taggart. The character is complex and multi-dimensional. Toom’s relationship with co-worker Marie Burke involves an intellectual commonality accented by an underlying passion. However, Toom remains faithful to his invalid and institutionalized wife. An example of Toom’s off-putting, yet strangely enduring dark cynicism toward conventionality and the status quo is reflected in a telling dialogue with fellow skeptic, Russell Williams (those of you familiar with RLDS historian William Russell will really enjoy this character):
When you say that some of the big daddies—the apostles, I guess—aren’t really believers, How can that be?
“Easy,” said Russ, “They’re environmental. It’s a job—a pretty good one, a way to use their skills, ply their trade—and their rewards are financial freedom, power, recognition, that kind of thing. They’re loyal, but they’d be lured away fairly easily if another environment proved to be equally user-friendly and offered more strokes.”
“Actually,” Toom mused, “I could be lured away by that kind of environment” (153-54).
Edwards’s depiction of Independence, Missouri, and its environs and, particularly, the inner workings of the church are also insightful and interesting. For example, in his descriptions of Dave Hodge, (fictional) secretary to the church’s (fictional) historian, James Pincer, Edwards captures some of the special challenges that naturally arise in working within an ecclesiastical organization where different kinds of authority so easily collide:
Hodge walked in, eyes sweeping the office. Hodge was not only a snoop but a blabbermouth. Pincer would have fired him long ago if his mother hadn’t been the sister of the Presiding Bishop (32).
Edwards’s strength is also one of his weaknesses, and perhaps the most poorly drawn character is Pincer. In descriptions of him, Edwards reflects an obvious, preconceived dislike for the character that spills onto the pages and, in so doing, makes him one-dimensional, with few, if any, saving graces.
The novel’s most glaring flaw, however, is the predictability of the mystery itself. Disappointingly, both victim and perpetrator are easy to spot quite early on. Creating a believable, well-written mystery is difficult. The plot line must be rational and well thought out, but at the same time, intricate and simple. In order to feel a part of the story, the reader must feel compelled to continue reading while still being able to piece together the clues. Edwards does not accomplish this. His mystery is too simple, leaving the reader dissatisfied with this aspect of the novel.
Ultimately, however, this book is valuable less as a gripping mystery than for the way it elucidates challenges the Community of Christ faces today. Readers familiar with the personalities of today’s Community of Christ leaders and historians will enjoy speculating about “who might be whom” in the novel. But more than that, Edwards, like Ellis Peters, has graced us through his trust that even as we view flaws, quirks, competing motives—inspired and very human—and the difficulties of faith, we will learn to see hearts most of all.
In short, the novel’s problems notwithstanding, Edwards’s introduction of protagonist Toom Taggart and glimpse into Community of Christ life and issues is, simply, a very good read, one worthy of attention and praise. I look forward to reading the further adventures of Paul, uh … I mean, Toom Taggart. I hope the next installment will involve better developed mysteries and continued character development, but this is a very promising start.
Library Bookwatch, The Mystery/Suspense Shelf
Paul M. Edwards’s The Angel Acronym is an involving and original mystery, featuring the head director of church education, Toom Taggart, who suspects foul play when the church archivist is found dead in the temple complex. A dark and twisted tale of hidden motives, and the conflicting politics of bureaucracy, religious zeal, and public perception, The Angel Acronym is a fascinating page-turner to be read closely to the last page.
Dialogue, Michael Austin
Paul Edwards’s first mystery novel, The Angel Acronym, is not exactly a religious novel, but it is a novel in which the characters spend a great deal of time talking about religion. And the religion that everybody is talking about is the Community of Christ, the religious organization known formerly (and in the novel) as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Nearly all of the characters—including the murder victim, the perpetrator, and the wise-cracking amateur sleuth—are all employees of the RLDS Temple School in Independence, Missouri, and the culture of the Church and its bureaucracy pervades nearly every aspect of the novel.
The main character and crime-solver in the novel is Toom Taggart, director of the RLDS Education Department and, like Edwards himself, a philosopher by training and lifetime academic. Taggart moves uneasily in the religious organization for which he works, none of whose essential characteristics are unique to one particular religion. Within this organization, faith always trumps scholarship, orthodoxy always trumps individuality, and obedience always trumps everything. Perhaps the best thing about The Angel Acronym is simply watching the scholarly, individualistic Taggart negotiate through an ecclesiastical hierarchy that seems to value neither scholarship nor individuality.
As Taggart navigates through the twin mazes of religious orthodoxy and bureaucratic inefficiency, he encounters—as the main character in a murder mystery must—a murder. The motive for the dastardly deed is actually set up in the novel’s preface, which goes to Palmyra, New York, in 1829 to set up a conspiracy. In this preface, Abner Cole (a real historical figure) and two fictional accomplices alter the opening pages of the Book of Mormon to introduce an acronym of “Angel Moroni” in the first letters of the opening eleven paragraphs. They also forge letters between Joseph and Hyrum Smith indicating that the entire Book of Mormon is an attempt to defraud the people of Palmyra. Cole dies prematurely, however, and the documents never surface. But when the chief archivist of the RLDS Church uncovers them, unaware that they are forgeries, and wants to publish the results, someone in the Church murders him to prevent them coming to light.
A plot in which a Mormon character commits murder to cover up an embarrassing historical document is not an innovation in the contemporary mystery genre. Ever since Mark Hofmann made such murders eerily plausible, a dozen or so mysteries have been published with a similar plot device—including David Everson’s False Profits (St. Martin’s Press, 1992), the only other mystery that I am aware of that has an RLDS/Community of Christ setting. But The Angel Acronym is very different than any of these novels because it is set so firmly within the religious structure. Its main character, like its author, is a genuine insider with a commitment to the community rather than an outside observer being baffled by “those crazy Mormons.”
Taggart’s inside observations about the Church structure make The Angel Acronym an extremely compelling book. As the squarest of pegs at Church headquarters, Taggart must, in the course of a single day, dodge unreasonable requests from the Brethren, fend off a modern-day Porter Rockwell figure who tries to prevent him from asking questions about the murdered man, defend the importance of honest inquiry to a Church historian who believes in suppressing uncomfortable truths, and attempt to get a cup of coffee from a waiter who doesn’t think that a man in his position should have it.
The extended philosophical discussions that Taggart has with other characters are both a significant strength and a minor weakness in the novel. Through these discussions, Taggart explores the nature of religious institutions, the difference between “faith” and “belief,” the role of historical truth in an epistemological context governed by faith, and the role of socialization in religious decision making. Consider the following thoughts from Taggart about the consequences of taking a life, even justifiably, in war:
Contingency killing unlocks the bonds of civilized behavior. It’s the crack in the veneer of respectability. It’s the exposure of human behavior. It says that the concept of humanity is primarily a lie. Before it happens, before a life is taken, a person doesn’t believe that he or she could be a killer. At least, probably not. The killer is not you or me. At least, it’s not who you consider when you consider yourself. …
What I am trying to say is that before you kill someone you don’t see yourself as someone who would kill. Afterwards, you know there’s nothing you wouldn’t do. There’s nothing more important to you, no reason powerful enough, no emotion deep enough, to prevent you—if that’s your decision—from taking a life. The process works on you. Sooner or later it abolishes the sense that there’s something special about human life, that there’s something special about us. …
It’s not something for which one can turn to a creator and be forgiven. What I am talking about is knowledge. Knowledge is lived, not forgiven. (199)
This is an excellent philosophical observation, deeply existential in its nature and reminiscent of key passages in Camus and Dostoyevsky. It is also an excellent theological point that has profound implications for our understanding of the meaning of the Garden of Eden and of original sin. However (and here is the weakness that I alluded to earlier), deep thoughts about religion, no matter how satisfying, do not always produce believable dialogue or compelling plot devices in mystery novels. The practical use to which Taggart puts the above observation—looking for the murderer only among those who served in Vietnam—is difficult to support given the fact that most murderers are not veterans. Though the observation is itself both sound and useful, it must be wrenched beyond the limits of soundness and utility to be converted into a “clue.”
Generally, The Angel Acronym does an excellent job of raising important questions about the relationship of religious institutions to their own histories and about the stifling effect of orthodoxy upon genuine historical inquiry. It does a somewhat less excellent job of presenting a compelling murder mystery in which a clever detective solves a difficult crime. Few readers will be surprised by either the murderer or the motive, nor will they be particularly impressed with the steps that the detective takes to come to what is actually a very obvious conclusion. The flaw is by no means fatal; Toom Taggart is a compelling character, and Edwards is an extremely insightful and gifted writer. His insights into the Community of Christ, and to religious culture in general, are profound and wide-ranging. A number of indications in the book (and its final words, “… to be continued”) suggest that Toom Taggart will be back. I, for one, will be here waiting.