'Desert Wives' by Betty Webb

By J M Cornwell,
Lena Jones, undercover polygamist

Lena Jones is back to work in Desert Wives and this time she is up against a polygamist compound. Her intention was to get her client's daughter, Rebecca, out of Prophet Solomon Royal's clutches. Rebecca is only 13 years old and doesn't want to marry Prophet Solomon and her mother doesn't want that either. She had already gotten away from that life and she wants a better life for herself and her daughter.

Len gets Rebecca back, but Rebecca's father Abel is determined to get her back, especially since he gets two 16-year old brides for giving his daughter to Solomon. Lena and Rebecca also find Solomon dead on their run through the night. Solomon's death means Rebecca is free, but only as long as her mother, Esther, didn't kill him, and it looks like Esther might have done just that.

With Esther in jail awaiting extradition to Utah and Rebecca staying with her partner Jimmy's friends on the reservation, the only thing left is for Lena to go under cover in Solomon Royal's polygamist compound and find out who killed him or Rebecca will end up married to the new polygamist prophet.

The clash between polygamists and the rest of the world is a meaty subject. Betty Webb tackles the incestuous relationships among local police and government officials and the tangled webs of polygamist families in Desert Wives. Lena is the most likely undercover agent ever since she has a hard time pretending to be meek and obedient and keeping her mouth shut. In short, Lena sticks out like a giant black ram among a herd of cowed white-fleeced sheep. She isn't very effective and spends more time sticking her nose into personal family relationships than finding out who killed Solomon Royal.

The polygamist compound is a quagmire of intrigue, abuse, and male superiority with a loathsome cast of characters on all sides and everyone is a suspect. However, Webb spends more time detailing the polygamist life and abuses than in laying down the clues that will lead to Solomon's killer, waiting until the very last for Lena to have an ah-ha moment and failing to share the brainstorm with the reader. Webb does give up the murderer but it is a wetly fizzled climax.

What Webb does very well is populate her stories with standout characters, many of which get great cameos that don't last, and very little development beyond Lena's passing interest. Webb describes the countryside beautifully but telegraphs the ending with a less sure hand. In the warring muddle of tracking down the murderer and moral outrage, Lena shines like a dark angel that lifts Desert Wives out of the ordinary.

Webb spends most of her crystal clear prose generously on Lena and the landscape, but seems to ignore the basic premise of a mystery is to solve the case. I enjoyed Desert Wives and was fascinated by the polygamist machinations, in this fast paced story, but was faintly dissatisfied in the search for the killer. All's well that ends well, except when the ending feels rushed and incomplete. I did, however, enjoy finding out more about Lena's past.

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