Misogyny & Murder: Betty Webb’s Polygamy Mysteries
by Ben Boulden
writer and journalist Betty Webb made a literary splash when her second Lena
Jones detective novel, Desert Wives, was published by Poisoned Pen Press
in 2002. The likable Lena – an orphan and socially-conscious private eye working the upscale Phoenix, Arizona suburb of Scottsdale – finds more than
murder while undercover in the fictional polygamist town of Purity on the Utah-Arizona
border. A swath of arid desert called the Arizona Strip and home to more
sheep than people, and more religious sects practicing polygyny – a form of
polygamy where one man marries multiple women – than anywhere else in the
United States. It is home to the infamous “prophet” Warren Jeffs and his Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS); headquartered in Colorado City, Arizona. Publishers Weekly called Desert Wives, “a searing exposé of the
abuses of contemporary polygamy,” and then added, “[it] could do
for polygamy what [Stowe’s] Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for slavery.”
Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times’ well-respected mystery critic, wrote:
“If Betty Webb had gone undercover and written Desert Wives as a piece of investigative journalism, she’d probably be up for a Pulitzer.”
But Desert Wives’ impact went beyond the literary world when a member of Arizona’s state legislature purchased a box of books and gave them to his fellow legislators. Through Lena’s clear eyes, Arizona’s lawmakers saw the reality of modern polygamy: incest, rape, child marriage, welfare fraud, human trafficking. The book was influential in the passage of a law raising Arizona’s age of marital consent from fourteen to sixteen, and in legislation, which failed becoming law by two votes – according to Webb, the bill failed because “two women legislators from [Mohave] county where Colorado City [is located]” voted against it – that would have made polygamy illegal in the state. But, as Webb explained to the Arizona Republic in 2004, the anti-polygamy law that passed was significant:
“It’s now a felony to give a little girl to a man for polygamist purposes, and it never was before…. Before the law was passed, it was legal to trade a little girl for a tractor to a polygamist man.”
The modern polygamist sects in the U.S. Southwest, including those in the Arizona Strip, tend to be inspired by early-Mormonism’s adoption of what it called “plural marriage” or “the principle.” It was practiced by the Church’s hierarchy from at least 1835, when Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr. married his first known plural wife (a teenage member of his household staff named Fanny Alger), until 1890 when the practice was begrudgingly abandoned after a decades long battle with the U.S. Government. But Desert Wives doesn’t dwell on the roots of American polygamy. Instead, it examines the dark and secretive aspects of the modern institution.
A few words about Lena Jones are mandatory since she has secrets of her own. At four years old Lena was abandoned and shot by her mother. The scar where the bullet grazed her skull is still visible, but her memories of the violence and her mother’s desertion are fragmented and perhaps even illusory. These childhood experiences inform Lena’s compassion for society’s victims and her compulsion to find justice.
Desert Wives begins with Lena rescuing thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from a polygamist compound in Purity and from a marriage to the sect’s 68-year-old prophet, Solomon Royal. A marriage arranged by Rebecca’s father in exchange for two of Solomon’s sixteen-year-old daughters.
The rescue comes off perfectly, but as Lena and Rebecca are leaving, they find Solomon Royal lying dead from a gunshot wound. Rebecca’s mother Esther, who is also Lena’s client, is the police’s primary suspect for Solomon’s murder. If Esther is convicted and sent to prison, Rebecca’s father will get custody and the girl will likely be forced into another marriage. Lena decides the best way to keep Esther out of jail, and Rebecca from the polygamist marriage bed, is by solving Solomon’s murder, and to do that she needs to be onsite in Purity. With help from an anti-polygamy group in Utah, Lena goes undercover as the second wife of a disaffected polygamist man.
What she discovers about the
secretive community – women have no value beyond sex and breeding and are
swapped from man to man; the children, especially the girls, are intentionally undereducated
to keep them dependent on the men – makes her want to go beyond solving
Solomon’s murder and shut down the entire corrupt system. Desert Wives
is an important narrative about modern polygamy and while its power is more as
a polemic, the mystery is solidly developed, and Lena is a likable and tough
Webb revisited polygamy with her sixth Lena Jones novel, Desert Lost (2009), but the setting changed from the Arizona Strip to the urban neighborhoods of Scottdale. While staking out an RV storage yard and hoping to catch serial vandals while the paint is still wet on their hands, Lena watches as a large package is pushed over the yard’s fence. Inside the package is the corpse of a woman wearing a “prairie-type dress.” She has the familiar look of the polygamists living hours away in the Arizona Strip, too: “pale Nordic features almost identical by generations of incest.”
Lena’s friend and an escaped polygamist wife, Rosella, identifies a photograph of the woman as her cousin and “former sister-wife” Celeste King from the Second Zion cult. Lena, at first bewildered about why a polygamist woman would be in Scottsdale, uncovers a small enclave of polygamists living behind a construction shop. The investigation leads her to other secrets, too, including what are known as “lost boys” – those young men expelled from polygamist compounds when they turn eighteen (and sometimes even younger) – living on their own without any skills or education and often working in urban areas as prostitutes or petty criminals.
Lena’s messy personal life is laid bare as she allows her past abandonments – first by her mother, and then by myriad foster parents – to destroy a burgeoning relationship with a kind-hearted and successful suitor. Lena’s irrational actions with her personal life, along with a Hollywood stalking case she is working for friend, distract from Desert Lost’s central mystery and as Kirkus noted, readers may “find [Lena] unsympathetic” because of her many bad decisions, but they “will be compelled and shocked by the grim depiction of polygamous life underpinning the mystery.”
Desert Lost is an enjoyable mystery, but it lacks the powerful narrative that made its predecessor so successful. Both mystery novels present modern polygamy as it is actually practiced in the American Southwest and should be required reading for anyone interested in that place where women’s rights and religious freedom collide.
little more about Betty Webb and Desert Wives & Desert Lost…
· Betty Webb was born in Du Quoin, Illinois, on August 28, 1942, to Gaston and Jean Webb. After her parents’ acrimonious divorce, Betty was the subject of an “ongoing custody battle” and she recalls being kidnapped by a parent more than once. Her father, the “black sheep” of his family, owned and operated illegal gambling clubs in Illinois. He died of colorectal cancer when Betty was a teenager.
Over the past several years, Betty has found two half-siblings from her father. She found a sister using Facebook and a brother – born within eight months of Betty – with a DNA test and a popular genealogy website. Betty’s mother moved to Detroit, Michigan and became a successful real estate investor. She was married seven times and died 15 years ago while suffering with Alzheimer’s.
Betty has two sons from her first marriage. She has worked on a horse farm, as an art director for advertising agencies, and starting in the mid-1970s as a reporter for various newspapers, including the Scottsdale Tribune and East Valley Tribune. Along with her 16 published novels, Webb has written two plays – The Gospel According to Lewis (produced in New York City), and The Prime Time for El Supremo (produced as a radio play in Phoenix, Arizona). She also wrote a genealogical history of her father’s family. She lives with her husband in Scottsdale, Arizona.
· Webb’s interest in polygamy began after reading a 1999 article in the Washington Post about a girl who had been beaten and raped after refusing to marry an uncle.
· While researching Desert Wives, Webb befriended several women that had escaped from Arizona Strip polygamist sects. She conducted extensive interviews with these women and traveled to the Utah-Arizona border towns of Hillsdale [Utah]/Colorado City [Arizona] where the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) is headquartered. The fictional polygamist sect in Desert Wives, Church of the Prophet Fundamental, was inspired by the real-life FLDS sect.
· In Desert Wives, the disaffected polygamist Lena Jones stayed with while undercover in Purity was based on an elderly man Webb met who had been “lured into polygamy.” He had signed all his assets over to the Church leaders with the promise that he would be given multiple wives; however, he “received” only two women, and both were past their prime breeding years.
· While researching Desert Lost, Webb discovered distant polygamist cousins living in Mesa, Arizona. She arranged a meeting and arrived at their home to discover the women wearing “prairie dresses” and happy to see her. The gathering turned sour when the women went on a racist rant about Blacks and slavery. In another interview, with two girls in a Phoenix safehouse, one of the girls referred to Black children as “[the] demons in the neighborhood.” According to Webb, one of the main tenants in many modern polygamist cults are deeply held racist views.
· Desert Wives was under development as a Lifetime television movie in the early-2000s. According to a 2004 article in the Arizona Republic, the actress Kelly Lynch was cast to play Lena Jones, but the project never materialized. Webb said, “[Lifetime] did a ‘polygamist wife’ [reality show] instead.”
· Desert Wind (2012), while not dealing with polygamy, is partially set in Southern Utah and it will be covered in a feature post.
Betty Webb’s Lena Jones novels…
Desert Noir (Poisoned Pen Press, 2001)
Desert Wives (Poisoned Pen Press, 2002) [See this book at Amazon]
Desert Shadows (Poisoned Pen Press, 2004)
Desert Run (Poisoned Pen Press, 2006)
Desert Cut (Poisoned Pen Press, 2008)
Desert Lost (Poisoned Pen Press, 2009) [See this book at Amazon]
Desert Wind (Poisoned Pen Press, 2012)
Desert Rage (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014)
Desert Vengeance (Poisoned Pen Press, 2017)
Desert Redemption (Poisoned Pen Press, 2019)
Boulden, Ben, Interview with Betty Webb, 1 Apr. 2022
Haller, Sonja, “Mystery Writer Solves Mystery of Her Sister,” Arizona Republic, 26 Sep. 2014
McFarland, Lois, “Valley Author in TV Movie Deal,” 1 Sep. 2004
Stasio, Marylin, “Crime,” The New York Times, 12 Jan. 2003
“Betty Webb”, Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2016
“Desert Lost”, Kirkus Reviews, 1 Oct. 2009
“Desert Wives”, Publishers Weekly, 16 Dec. 2002
Copyright © 2022 by Ben Boulden / All Rights Reserved
“Misogyny & Murder: Betty Webb’s Polygamy Mysteries” is part of the Utah/Mormon
Mystery Project at Dark City Underground. An undertaking dedicated
to identifying mainstream mystery and crime novels set in Utah and/or with Mormon culture.
Leave a comment or send me an email (email@example.com) if you know of any mainstream mystery novels set in Utah or among Mormons.
Terrific review of a wonderful book!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Marylee. I had fun reading, researching, and then writing the article. Even better is when someone reads it and actually likes.Delete