When DESERT WIVES opens Lena Jones, a female private detective, is in the final stages of rescuing 13 year-old Rebecca Corbett from the polygamist’s compound her father took her to so she could marry the compound’s spiritual leader. But as the pair are leaving the desert compound, which straddles the Arizona and Utah borders, they stumble across the body of the very man Rebecca was to marry. They make their escape anyway and Rebecca is soon reunited with her mother Esther but not for long. Police in both states quickly focus their attention on Esther as Prophet Solomon’s killer and when they take her into custody Lena and her partner in the detective agency have to hide Rebecca and Lena, believing that no one in authority is looking for Salomon’s real killer, takes it upon herself to infiltrate the compound to find out who else had the means and motive for killing the man.
I think like most regular readers of the gritty end of the crime fiction spectrum I’m hard to shock but I have to say this book managed to (figuratively) shock the pants off me. Although fictional it is clear – both from the content of the story and the author’s after word – that its depiction of the practice of polygamy in these types of compounds is heavily based on real life cases and events. We learn about the way that the women in these compounds are cut off entirely from any outside influences and are trapped there by ignorance of any other life, especially when they start having the many children they are expected to produce. But there is much worse for us all to uncover: large-scale welfare fraud, forced marriages, violence against and sexual abuse of women and young girls, a dire lack of basic medical care and knowledge leading to unnecessary deaths and appalling and unnecessary birth defects. And perhaps most shameful of all there is the fact that much of this is known by the authorities and is allowed to continue virtually unchecked.
As a social commentary this book does clearly have an agenda which is something I am normally wary of. However by using Lena to lead us through the revelations of the goings on in Purity (the name of the compound) Webb manages to avoid proselytising for the most part. And you’d be hard pressed to find a way to provide a balanced view of the disturbing, stomach-churning behaviour of the men in Purity. It seems to be my week for reading pleasant-looking books that hide an unexpectedly dark heart. Here, once again, there are injustices being committed against the most vulnerable people in our collective midsts and, yet again, those same people are let down by the very systems which are meant to protect them.
As a mystery novel I have to admit DESERT WIVES does not work as well. Lena, perhaps not unreasonably given the horrors she is uncovering, often seems to forget what he is meant to be investigating while she is in Purity and the crime-solving element of the book is perfunctory at best. It didn’t really bother me as I was so compelled by the rest of the drama unfolding but if you are looking for a top-notch whodunnit this is not the book for you.
In some ways the best ‘characters’ in the novel are the places. Both harsh and beautiful elements of the desert location are depicted in such a way as to make the reader feel transported there. And Purity as a place is also fabulously brought to life: the sheer numbers of people, the production-line quality of the many births that take place every week, the austerity of conditions for the many (while the chosen few live in luxury) (go figure) are all present as images in my mind an none of it looks much like Big Love.
While not a book for those focused on mystery for its own sake DESERT WIVES is a compelling read for those who are willing to let crime solving take a back seat to the depiction of wholesale injustice. This part of the storytelling is done well, with Webb building to a dramatic conclusion at a brisk pace and with just the right amount of character development along the way. If, by chance, the book doesn’t make you angry on behalf of its victims I really don’t want to know you.
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I can’t remember now what prompted me to obtain a copy of this book for my eReader but, as is the way of things, it had languished there unnoticed for nearly a year until I spied it on the upcoming list of the In The Spotlight feature at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. The column by mystery novelist and walking crime fiction encyclopedia Margot Kinberg delves in depth into a single novel each week and I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to knock a book off my TBR pile and be able to participate in the discussion about the week’s book for a change. If you haven’t already done so you should check out Margot’s excellent blog and especially past In the Spotlight entries A-L, M-Z. Desert Wives will be discussed at the blog next week.
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My rating 3.5/5
Publisher Poisoned Pen Press 
Length 250 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series #2 in the Lena Jones series
Source I bought it
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