Polygamists, Outlaws & Mormons: The Crime and Western Tales of Gary Stewart
by Ben Boulden
Gary Stewart wrote two outstanding mystery
novels set among Utah’s Mormons during the turbulent 1980s featuring the cool, ironic,
humorous, and capable private eye, Gabriel Utley. The Tenth Virgin,
published by St. Martin’s Press in 1983, is about murder, conspiracy, and polygamy.
The sort of polygamy Mormon founder, Joseph Smith Jr., embraced in the mid-nineteenth
century and the Mormon Church abandoned five decades later. The Zarahemla
Vision (St. Martin’s Press, 1986), focused on corporate corruption, racism,
and the succession from one Mormon prophet to the next. Kirkus called The
Tenth Virgin, “a lively debut,” and Publishers Weekly applauded
The Zarahemla Vision’s “marvelously intricate mystery,” the believable
and often “crazed” characters and its “fascinating looks at modern Mormonism.”
But writing novels was a sideline gig for the talented and energetic Stewart. He held a doctorate in theater criticism from the University of Iowa and spent 36 years in academia. He taught theater at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMASS), and then at Indiana State University (ISU). During his teaching career, according to his 2018 obituary, “[Stewart] was Artistic Director of the professional SummerStage Repertory Company for 24 years… [and] directed some seventy productions[.]” He wrote seven plays that were produced for the stage: “two were published and three were produced professionally, among them Downwinder Dance and Mary and Joe.”
Downwinder Dance is described as a comedic “tale of two peculiar people who find romance in a mysterious old barn near a nuclear test site.” Its title, Downwinder, comes from the term used to describe those living downwind from the Nevada Nuclear Test Site (including, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) during the 1950s and early-1960s.
Sara Gilbert, made famous by her role as Darlene Connor on television’s Rosanne, made her stage debut in Downwinder Dance at The Cincinnati Playhouse in 1992. The play was described by the Terre Haute Tribune Star as, “[coming] across as a delightful ballet, twirling and twisting its way from the stage and into the heart of its audience.”
He was born on March 5, 1937, as Gary L Stewart – according to his daughter, “the L stands for nothing” – to Gabriel Lavirl Stewart and Vera Miles Stewart in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was raised in Kaysville, a northern Utah town, and Gary’s father was the distributing agent for the Salt Lake Tribune in Kaysville’s larger neighbor, Ogden. His mother Vera suffered with bipolar disorder, and during periods when she was hospitalized with the illness, Gary lived with an aunt in rural Tooele County, Utah. What must have been a terrible feeling of abandonment during his mother’s absences informs Stewart’s published fiction since his two fictional heroes, Gabe Utley and Miles Utley, are both orphans, abandoned by their parents through death.
Gary served a proselytizing mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon Church, to London, England, in 1955 and 1956. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a B.A., where he performed in several stage plays as an undergraduate, including Angel in a Pawnshop and Oedipus Rex. He married Diana Louise Markham in September 1961. They had two daughters, Beth and Emily. Beth was born while Stewart was completing his doctoral studies at the University of Iowa, and Emily was born after Stewart had taken a teaching post at UMASS.
Stewart was inspired to write a western, Avenging Angel, after his wife Diana signed a contract to write romance novels for Silhouette in the late-1970s. Diana’s Silhouette titles – there are six listed on Goodreads – were published as by Diana Dixon. Diana also adapted at least a dozen literary classics for young readers in the Raintree Short Classics series, including Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Avenging Angel is set on the Mormon frontier in the violent years after the Utah War (1857-58) and populated with real-life characters, including the outlaws Orrin Porter Rockwell and Bill Hickman, and the Mormon prophet, Brigham Young. It was written “in longhand on legal pads” in 1979-80. It was written for a writing contest and was never published, but TNT produced a watchable 1995 television movie using Stewart’s manuscript as its basis. Tom Berenger starred as the hero, Miles Utley, and James Coburn played Porter Rockwell with Charlton Heston as Brigham Young. In a 1995 Los Angeles Times interview, Berenger said it was the manuscript’s religious bent that appealed to him as an actor and “made it different [from] other Westerns.”
It’s that same off-beat “religious bent,” along with Stewart’s kind and honest handling of Utah’s Mormon culture of the 1980s, that make his two Gabe Utley novels special. In The Tenth Virgin, New York City private eye Gabriel Utley returns to his native Salt Lake City. A place he thought he would never return after his uncle, who raised Gabe on Salt Lake’s east side, died years earlier. Gabe’s non-member status with the Church, what Mormon’s call a gentile, made him an outsider in the community.
Gabe is back at the request of his high school sweetheart, Linda Peterson, when her teenage daughter Jennifer runs away from home. Jennifer’s father, David, is a wealthy and high-ranking official in the Mormon Church that is unconcerned about his wayward daughter. As he tells Gabe, “[my] thought would be just let it go.” His ambivalence is caused by Jennifer’s reason for leaving. She married the leader of a violent Southern Utah polygamist sect, and her polygyny marriage would be damaging to her father’s religious ambitions because the Mormon Church no longer tolerates polygamy. It excommunicates any members practicing what it calls plural marriage and David is afraid his daughter’s actions will reflect back on him. Gabe, mostly alone and facing plenty of danger, follows the clues from the heights of Salt Lake City’s Mormondom to the poverty of Southern Utah, and back again.
knack for capturing Mormonism’s unique culture, from its hierarchical structure
to its more endearing family-centric attitudes, with a sly and kind humor make The
Tenth Virgin something of a time capsule of Utah and Mormonism in the
1980s. It’s obvious Stewart paid attention to the people and the cultural structure of his
childhood religion. The characters are recognizably Mormon, from the misogynistic
and often violent bigamist fundamentalists to the paternalistic and authoritarian
Church leadership – which one character notes, “[you] don’t find a whole lot of
sentimentality among those tough old birds who run the Church” – to the meek
and strong women.
In The Zarahemla Vision Gabe finds himself stalled in Salt Lake City without much happening except for an on-again and off-again romance with the beautiful and exciting Mona McKinley. Mona is a non-Mormon reporter working for the Church-owned Deseret News. Her contrarian views, women’s rights among them, keep the paper’s management suspicious of everything she does. When Gabe’s Aunt Hattie asks for help tracking down her son Parley – who claims to have kidnapped the Mormon prophet, Wilford Richards, at the request of an angel – Gabe reluctantly agrees to help. But Parley’s disappearance fits into a much larger conspiracy. Shortly after Hattie asks for Gabe’s help, the Church announces Richards’ death, although his body isn’t being shown publicly. Then a prominent Native American Mormon is murdered, and an official Church file, called the Zarahemla File (rumored to be a new revelation given to Richards), goes missing. More perplexing to Gabe is Mona’s mysterious connections to whatever is happening in Mormondom.
The Zarahemla Vision’s plot flirts with confusion: a bunch of stuff is happening and much of it is, as one character says, “weird.” The plot’s oddities come from the Nephite and Lamanite tales in the Book of Mormon. The Nephites were righteous followers of Christ in the New World and described as “white and delightsome” while the Lamanites were “cursed with dark skin” because of their wickedness. The Lamanites caused wars, sacked the great Nephite city of Zarahemla, and ultimately annihilated the Nephites. This mythology, along with the Mormon theology that modern Native Americans are descendants of the Lamanites, plays into the story admirably. And Stewart explains the underlying Mormon theology with enough detail, without slowing the story, so every reader (no matter their knowledge of Mormonism) will understand.
The characters are wonderful. A crazy fundamentalist Mormon pamphleteer, Parley and Parley’s pitiable fiancée, a mythical Native American ushering Gabe into the climactic desert chase, and (of course) the beautiful Mona. Quirky Mormon culture is drawn with humor and fondness, as can be seen in this dialogue from Aunt Hattie:
“Probably…the home teachers. They’re a real boring pair, Gabriel. The fat one gives me lessons six times a year on the evils of drinking tea.”
While Stewart’s published novels are objective about Utah and Mormonism, his relationship with the Mormon Church was complicated. His study of Mormon history gave him doubts about the religion’s divine origins. He stopped attending church services in the early-1980s. After The Zarahemla Vision was released in 1986, Stewart received a letter from the Mormon Church asking him to reconsider how he portrayed Mormonism in his writing. A serious threat since the Church has never been shy about excommunicating writers for exploring its darker places. According to Stewart’s daughter Beth, even with his doubts about the Church’s teachings, he had always considered himself Mormon and “it would have hurt” if he had been expelled.
Gary L Stewart died on April 18, 2018. He spent eight days in a French hospital after falling and breaking his leg in Charles de Gaulle Airport while returning home from a trip to London. His sister accompanied him home to Salt Lake City, where he had lived since retiring from ISU. He died from a pulmonary embolism at the University of Utah hospital at the age of 81.
a little more about Gary Stewart…
· Diana Markham Stewart died on March 3, 2001, from complications of Multiple Sclerosis.
· The names of Stewart’s two protagonists, Gabriel Utley and Miles Utley, are combinations of family names. Utley is a surname on his father’s side. Gabriel (of course) was his father’s name. Miles was his mother’s maiden name.
· A third Gabe Utley novel, The Cookie Ladies, was completed but never published.
· While researching The Cookie Ladies, he wanted to see inside the Salt Lake City building where the Mormon Church’s top-level ecclesiastical leaders had offices, but he was worried he would be turned away because of the letter the Church had sent him after The Zarahemla Vision was published. So, he devised a plan that included his daughter and granddaughter. He purchased books written by two officials with offices in the building, approached the front desk and asked if the men would sign their books “for my granddaughter.” The secretary tapped the keys of a computer terminal, entering the false name Stewart had given, studied the screen for several seconds before ushering them into the building. His daughter said the books were all signed, and the men were nice, but it was creepy because the second official knew everything that had been said in the first official’s office, as though he had been listening in.
· Richard Gere, the successful film actor, was Gary’s student at UMASS in the late-1960s.
· He was a voracious reader of classical literature and biographies. His favorite mystery writer was Peter Abrams.
· A few of his produced plays are, Whitehead Family Reunion, Daddy’s Gone Home to Mother in Heaven, and Great Salt Lake Festival.
· His article, “Why I Can’t Write my Joseph Smith Play” appeared in Sunstone Magazine in January 2001.
Gary Stewart’s Bibliography
Avenging Angel (unpublished, 1980; basis for the television movie, Avenging Angel )
The Tenth Virgin (St. Martin’s Press, 1983; Critic’s Choice, 1988; Brash Books, 2022)
The Zarahemla Vision (St. Martin’s Press, 1986; Critic’s Choice, 1988; Brash Books, 2022)
The Cookie Ladies (unpublished, late-1980s)
Good news! Gary Stewart's two Gabe Utley novels have found life again with new editions – in both paperback and on Amazon Kindle – from Brash Books. Follow these links to Amazon (click the book titles) for The Tenth Virgin and The Zarahemla Vision.
Hassett, Beth, interview, 19 Dec. 2020
King, Susan, “Actor Picks a Movie by its Story, Not the Director,” Los Angeles Times, 22 Jan. 1995
Stewart, Diana Markham (obituary), Deseret News, 6 Mar. 2001
Stewart, Gary (obituary), Deseret News, 20 April 2018
Copyright © 2022 by Ben Boulden / All Rights Reserved
This article is part of the Utah
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