reviews – The Pictograph Murders

The Pictograph MurdersReviewed by Jeffrey Needle

Alexandra (Alex) McKelvey is a convert to the LDS Church. She is enrolled at BYU, studying English. But she finds herself on an archaeological dig in the Utah desert, accompanied by archaeology students from BYU. She feels a strong connection with the earth, with the myths and legends of the Native Americans who populated, and continue to populate, these stark, desert lands. She is accompanied by her nearly prescient Siberian husky named Kit.

As the dig progresses, new members of the crew arrive. They are a mixed bunch — archaeology students from BYU along with other non-affiliated adventurers. Some don’t fully understand the challenges ahead — the crude living conditions, the bitterly-hot desert, and really hard work ahead.

The arrival of Tony Balbo, a Native American not assigned to the site, causes conflict and concern among some of the diggers. Tony’s philosophy is wrapped in the stuff of ego and contempt, the necessity for manipulation and deceit. Alex has determined to live by the moral standards of her adopted church. But there is a deeper antipathy at work here, one that Alex does not completely understand. As a moth to the flame, she is drawn into Tony’s circle of control, intent on breaking free but feeling a need to, in her words, “call him out.”

Alex is the central character in this story. She brings to the dig two unique aspects: her status as a relatively new convert to the Church, and her fascination with, and connection to, the earth legends. This is not the first time she’s been drawn into the desert to admire the pictographs. In them she seems to find some peace, some connection with a higher reality.

But interwoven with Alex’s story is an ongoing narrative wrapped around the myths themselves — a veritable parade of legends and interactions in the world of the spirits, seen through the interpretive eye of Coyote, also known as First Angry. Coyote sees himself as the personification of all that is clever, all this is superior to the animals around him.

Coyote’s sometimes disjointed but often magical cogitations circle in the air around this book much as a kaleidoscope sends images flying neatly before the human eye. As I read, I was equally fascinated by the grime and the smell of an archaeological dig as I was by the lofty, ethereal meanderings of Coyote. And as the humans at the dig interact in ways both accepting and suspicious, even so does the mythic populace of Coyote’s dreamworld, a cornucopia of animals and reptiles forever in conflict.

I debated as to how to describe how the storylines come together. I realized I couldn’t do it without giving away much of the plot, and I’m unwilling to do that.

But It is in the merging of storylines that the real meaning behind this book arises. To call the story “spooky” is not enough. There is another-worldliness about it that kept me riveted. Long after I should have been abed, I was plowing through the pages, wanting desperately to come to some point where I could say, “Now I understand; now I see what the author is trying to say.” Instead, the reader waits until the last few pages to truly bring the underlying message to fruition.

“The Pictograph Murders” is more than just a murder mystery. In fact, the murder itself is in many ways secondary to the story. Karamesines is doing more than laying out a desert puzzler. The field of play is more than the desert — it is the totality of the human experience as reflected in the sometimes uncomfortable coexistence of history/science and myth.

The primary digging is not done in the sand, but rather in the levels of consciousness that drive and inform us. At issue here is not the collection of shards and pots, but the clarification of the place of truth in both the scientific and religious endeavors. Readers will be captivated as Alex and Tony spar over the meaning of truth, the place of myth, and whether history can even be written unaffected by the undercurrents of culture and bias. Chapter 30 is a rich mine of philosophical debate, a virtual war between two people from different backgrounds and with different agendas.

And as the story progresses, the reader becomes aware of a larger battle going on — one that challenges an idea that is so Mormon, so religious. If a person fully buys into a mythical self-understanding, can that understanding lead the person to do remarkable things? With the ongoing debate over the historicity of the Book of Mormon, one must wonder whether historicity ought to be an issue at all. Is myth a sufficient motivation to bring out the best, and the worst, in people?

In the end, “The Pictograph Murders” challenges the reader to see past the physical into the realm of the mythic, perhaps the realm of the possible. The digging in the earth is nothing as compared to the digging into the psyche. Much of this book disturbed me in a very profound way. I found myself rethinking my own views of religion and the power of legend.

Some years ago I read Margaret Young’s “Salvador” for the first time. It made me reconsider my views of Mormonism and my own sense of the sacred. Now I find myself in a state of introspection once again, a feeling that I need to attain some sense of balance between the real, whatever that is, and the mythic. But having read “The Pictograph Murders,” I am aware that such explorations can lead alternately to enlightenment and to madness. And, in the end, the real challenge is in determining which is which. I’m not so sure I know any more.

This is a remarkable book, and merits wide readership.

Times and Seasons, Rosalynde Welch
Murder most foul, in the strange natural world of southern Utah.

I first came into possession of my fellow blogger’s novel at least two years ago, before she was a fellow blogger, when Patricia very kindly sent me a copy with the understanding that I would review it for the Times & Seasons. I read the book at once but never managed to write up a review, and over the months the good student at the seat of my psyche got guilty and anxious. So I was pleased and relieved recently to have occasion to pull out the book again and write up my thoughts about the novel as part of my presentation at the MSH conference.

The Pictograph Murders was published by Signature Books in 2004, and was awarded the prize for Best Novel by the Association for Mormon Letters that same year. The novel is a murder mystery set at an archaeological dig in southern Utah, at the center of which the philosophically-minded detective-protagonist, Alex, observes the unfolding events through the twin lenses of Navajo folklore and a recondite ecological consciousness. Alex is LDS, as are a number of the supporting characters, and the eco-religious politics of Mormonism in rural southern Utah plays an important part in the mystery plot surrounding Tony “Coyote” Balbo, but in general the overtly Mormon content in the novel is minimal.

The narrative symbolism, however, is Mormon through and through. The story is essentially a re-telling of the Mormon temple narrative; an anti-god, Coyote, is cast out of heaven for over-reaching, and takes up residence as the local god of what’s called a “garden of significance” (336), the field school; Alex, the protagonist, dramatizes the primal story of innocence, choice, sin, fall, and exodus, as she herself falls under Tony Balbo’s spell and succumbs, momentarily, to enmity; while outside the garden, she encounters a divine messenger who approaches with a transformative gesture: she descends to hell, Tony’s cave, but is ultimately saved by her dog, Kit, a clear Christ-figure who is repeatedly placed liminally to light, “her body divided in half between the weak light from the bulbs and the darkness beyond the tent” (159). The story is replete with temple imagery, including a holy place called the Water Temple, and an esoteric philosophy of choice, creation, and Otherness. In this way the novel works to re-set a theologically Mormon theogony in a historically Mormon context, southern Utah, even as it recasts that familiar landscape in wild and alien terms.

Karamesines’s philosophical ambitions are wider than the limited narrative scope of the genre mystery would at first seem to suggest. Beyond retelling foundational myths, Karamesines undertakes to comment on the contradictions and limitations of art within an ethos of community. The protagonist, Alex, quickly establishes a recognizably literary point-of-view flagged by the alienation of the insider-outsider. Alex is a convert to the church who takes with her to BYU the emotional burden of an abusive background, and from this divided perspective she launches mild critiques of Mormon culture: she satirizes a certain Mormon unreflectiveness captured in the underdone Caedyn, a fellow field-schooler, for example, and complains lightly about Mormon marriage-mindedness. Alex drops knowing references to Yeats and Frost, and an ironic nod to cowboy poet Robert Service, but even as Karamesines marks Alex as a high-literary character in this way, she leaves hints that Alex is not your typical alienated English major: Alex’s field is folklore, not the superstar romantic poets, we’re told, and she’s obsessed with Navajo myth.

This is not to say that there is no larger-than-life romantic artist in the novel, however: there is, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say that it’s the bad guy, Tony Balbo, who styles himself as the Navajo folklore character Coyote, is set up from the beginning as the prime suspect–the mystery is not so much a whodunit as a “how did he do it?”–and, also from the beginning, he’s shown to be a classic outsider artist: alienated, charismatic, possessed of (and by) a vigorous personal aesthetic the business end of which he is not afraid to wave at his audience. We’re first introduced to Tony through his alter-ego, Coyote, who has been cast out of the theater of the gods into the world outside: before he goes, though, he scratches a representation of the gods onto a stone:

[Coyote] turned the stone around to reveal the portrait he had scratched into it. He really did have skill as an artist even if he said so himself. The gods gazed on it in silence. The First Angry laid the stone in the sand, portrait side down.

As he walked away, he heard Man Counting say, “I thought we were bigger than that.” (4)

In this short passage we see the artist as outsider, we see art as subversion, and we see the tension that Karamesines sets up between the capital-A Art represented by Tony and the folklore beloved by Alex. At the climax of the novel, these two views of art and form come head to head in a perfectly evocative setting: in a remote cave, Tony has created an installation of pottery shards stolen from the dig site, broken and hung in a kind of Calder-esque kinetic sculpture. Tony has literally appropriated, de-contextualized, and re-invented these inherited artistic forms according to a robust personal sensibility–and while the scene is striking, Alex rejects Tony’s aesthetic of subversion and invention:

“A lot of art is clever,” Alex said. “But it isn’t beautiful. Your ‘effort’ works in the way a lot of art works–as a monument to violation.” (334)

Tony’s installation defies in every particular Alex’s aesthetic of redemption and community embodied in an archaic Indian pictograph wall she visits frequently. We read of the panel:

Presumably some isolated band of Archaic Indians had produced this series of pictographs. Strange and phantasmal, the most impressive images had massive, trapezoidal bodies, wide at the shoulders, narrowing at their bottom ends or wisping away, … Between the more ornate images, evaporating spirit bodies of dark brown paint seemed to undulate like smoke in a breeze. (10)

Where Tony’s sculpture registers the artist’s touch at every turn, the pictograph panel is created anonymously, communally; where the sculpture relies on subversion and re-invention for its effect, the panel uses elaboration, repetition, and superior execution of form to achieve its ends. Tellingly, it is in contemplation before the pictograph panel that Alex finally solves the mystery near the novel’s end. Characteristically, Karamesines uses that plot point to comment on the work of novel and novelist herself: it is in the mystery’s resolution that the reader, too, begins to glimpse the tensions acting on the Mormon artist. While the esoteric theogony of the temple themes point toward a wild grace available in the encounter with the Other, the mortal conflict between Alex and Tony gestures toward a homelier ideal of shared communal forms, redemptive precisely because they are familiar and available. It is in this conflict between the alien and the domesticated that Karamesines makes her art, and makes it Mormon.