The historical event upon which this present-day mystery is based takes up very few of the pages – a prologue, an epilogue, and six pages of unadulterated carnage midway toward the end – describing in some detail the slaying in Utah of a wagon train of settlers headed for California in 1857, the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Back in today’s world, an illiterate young defendant, a drifter, is accused of killing a long-time resident of Kanab, Utah. At close to the last moment, Brig Bybee, a defense attorney precariously on the verge of permanent disbarment, is added to the case. The lead counsel, it seems, is making waves, talking conspiracy, crazy stuff, weird things, upsetting the elders of the Mormon church. What’s wanted, Brig is told, is a standard trial – just to let things run their course.
And of course they don’t. Complicating matters for Brig is the dead man’s granddaughter, to whom he’s immediately attracted. This is a dark but still compulsively readable detective novel, with one of the most curiously unappealing scenes of lovemaking you’re apt to come across in a lifetime of reading. Nor does the Mormon church come out smelling like flowers, and quite intentionally so.
A bigger problem is the way the events of the past – which of course are intimately connected to what’s happening in the present – are so murkily developed. There’s no background leading up to the massacre. Eventually we learn what happened, but not why. The inside flap of the dust jacket helps to put things into the proper context, but isn’t that the job of the author?