Desolation Flats by Andrew Hunt is book #3 in the Art Oveson Mystery series (Available November 15, 2016).
I went into this story not really knowing what to expect. Set in Salt Lake City, Utah and with a Mormon main character, I knew I hadn’t read anything like it before. The idea was equal parts intriguing and completely unknown territory for me. What I would soon find out was that it was something I would thoroughly enjoy—and even want more of.
The year is 1938, and land speed racing is the event. The main character, Art Oveson, is a police detective with the Salt Lake City Police Department Missing Persons Bureau. A devout Mormon, Oveson is a family man with a wife and three children.
His wife, Clara, has been diagnosed with “melancholia” since she gave birth to their last child; a diagnosis she also experienced with a previous pregnancy. Of course, we know this today as probably being a form of postpartum depression, which the author portrays well. Clara might also be dealing with a more general form of depression, too, since she caved in to pressure from family and church members to quit her teaching job, which had provided her with satisfaction and great pleasure.
I am not very knowledgeable about the Mormon Church, but author Andrew Hunt paints a decent picture of how things work on a small scale within this community during this time period.
The story starts with Oveson on the famed Salt Flats helping his cousin with his land speed racing team. The main competitor to beat is Clive Underhill, a famed British racer. Another accomplished racer, Germany’s Gerhardt “Rudy” Heinrich, brings the promise of unveiling a new car that will reach speeds never seen before.
Given that this story is set during the time of the rise of Hitler’s war machine, there are several references to the Nazi party and the persecution of the Jewish people. Hitler apparently had great interest in Underhill’s car. Underhill had also been receiving death threats and consequently hired Roscoe Lund, a good friend of Oveson, as a bodyguard. When Underhill’s brother—who is also his manager—ends up dead and Underhill himself goes missing, Lund is the prime suspect. Oveson must solve the murder and clear his friend’s name while getting caught up in a bigger, more complicated mess that puts him in danger.
Hunt has written a well-paced, intriguing novel that sheds light on the Mormon lifestyle and portrays the time period very well. At first, I thought it was going to be a clean murder mystery, given the main character’s religious beliefs. “My wife, Clara, always warned me that chivalry would be my downfall.” Oveson is a clean-cut family guy, mannerly, and the hardest thing he drinks is lemonade.
Oveson falls into a corrupt world, unknown and inexperienced by him previously, but he stays faithful to his morals. Some of my favorite scenes were when Oveson interacted with these criminals. He's the kind of main character I would like to see more of. He’s complex, but not overtly so. His internal struggle is what makes him interesting, and when forced to act on these internal thoughts, the stakes are instantly raised.
I also enjoyed Hunt’s style. It’s not pretentious or cut throat, but carries an elegance and weight that bears experience and talent. Here’s a passage that exemplifies both Oveson’s character and Hunt’s prose:
One often hears that before you think you’re about to die, you see your whole life flash before your eyes. It’s not true. You only see a handful of snapshots – maybe half a dozen images total – because you simply don’t have enough time to walk through your entire life again. With flames devouring car wreckage, gasoline fumes stabbing my nostrils, and a hand reaching out of twisted metal beckoning for help, I had no time for a stroll down memory lane. Still, scenes from my life – etched in the deepest recesses of my mind – took shape with crystal clarity: the morning when I was seven that my father took me fishing on the lake; the time I found out he’d been shot and killed; my first awkward dance with fifteen-year-old Clara Snow, whom I later married; the day I awake from a coma-like state after battling the Spanish influenza of 1918; the births of my three children, Sarah Jane, Hyrum, and Emily…
There’s also a lot of history in this story. It’s a turbulent time that was starting to see many changes, socially and economically, and Hunt expresses this with grace. I recommend this book to readers who enjoy tales set in this time period, anyone interested in the Mormon lifestyle, and also those intrigued by the subject of land speed racing. It has turned out to be one of my favorite recent reads.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Amber Keller is a writer who delves into dark, speculative fiction, particularly horror and suspense/thrillers. You can find her work on her Amazon Author Page and she also features many short stories on Diary of a Writer. A member of the Horror Writers Association, she contributes to many websites and eMagazines and you can follow her on Twitter @akeller9.