(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) There’s been an emergence in what I call the Mormon pulp fiction genre. Far less refined than an Orson Scott Card novel, writers delve into thriller tales with Mormon plots or ideas. Last year the short story anthology, “Monsters & Mormons” (Peculiar Pages) was published (read). Tales included missionaries fighting off flesh-seating zombies and another missionary being rescued in outer space by polygamous aliens. And now “Millstone City,” from Zarahemla, provides the Mormon pulp fiction novel. In a gang-infested lawless section of Brazil, breaking the rules leads Elder Zach Carson to witness a murder. Soon, he and his companion are on a race for their lives, trailed by psychopathic criminals. Two detectives, overwhelmed by a law enforcement system that is completely corrupt, try to help but are forced to flee for their own lives.
The term “pulp fiction” is not a criticism of the tale. Author S.P. Bailey has written an exciting, fast-paced, heavy-on-action story that takes constant twists and turns, with Carson and his companion, Elder Nordgren, racing from one threat only to encounter a more dangerous one in the next chapter. Here’s a plot: Elder Carson, pining for his girlfriend, Lilly, takes a late-night stroll (alone) to a local business in Olinda, Brazil, that offers long-distance phone service. That’s a big no-no in the mission field. While there, two men flit into the store and murder the employee. Elder Carson hiding, makes eye contact with one of the killers. His name is Heitor, one of their recent converts. Heitor stays silent and the now-traumatized Carson returns to his lodgings with Elder Nordgren.
That leads to a few days of fast-paced nightmares where Carson and Nordgren try desperately to get out of the remote Olinda and back to Recife, where they can seek refuge with either the mission home or the United States consul. They are at first stymied by Heitor, who threatens Carson and Nordgren and has them tailed by low-level gang members. However, things spiral out of control once the leaders of the gang, which deals with illegal organ transplants, decides to kill the elders.
There is a claustrophobic quality to the scenario author Bailey lays out. Carson and Nordgren can walk around Olinda, shop at stores, seek help from two detectives, Costa and Assis, who try to help them, visit Heitor’s family, who are unaware of his criminal deeds, call their mission president, who pleads with them to get out of there, visit a nosy “cougarish” neighbor, Luz, who later pays with her life for her interference. Despite their ubiquity, the elders literally seem like mice being pawed by cats in an alley with no escape hatch.
A good example of the prose is found in this scene, in a slum called Ilha do Bicho, the elders run for their lives from a local hoodlum ready to kill them:
“You’re dead, Mormons,” Mateus calls after us.
We turn a corner. Nordgren crashes into a rusty old stove. He knocks it down and tumbles over it. Hundreds of cockroaches and three flabby rats scatter. I’m running directly behind Nordgren; I trip over a rat and hit the dirt. It shrieks and sinks its teeth into my shoulder. I reach around and pull it off — it’s greasy and feverish — hot in my hand. I fling it away from me against a shack, pull myself up, and run after Nordgren.”
In that same scene, Bailey, in pulp fiction fashion, lends some gritty humor as the missionaries race through a shack right past two lovers. “We get a glimpse of middle-aged people copulating on the couch. They are big and sweaty and oblivious — they don’t notice the Americanos running wildly through their living room.”
Carson and Nordgren’s mortal peril, to many in the novel, is akin to bored wildlife watching a frantic lone human slowly sink into quicksand. The scene where corrupt federal law enforcement personnel contemptuously seize the missionaries from the two detectives trying to help them and throw them into a hellish, overcrowded roach- and rat-infested prison is chilling in its spareness and lack of emotion. The missionaries are taken to the gang leader, The Elbow, who carelessly tells them they are to become forced organ donors.
The story doesn’t end there. The elders will escape that threat, only to face another. Late in the novel, they receive help from an unexpected source, a repentant killer reluctantly hoping for redemption.
As mentioned, this is a good read. As with pulp fiction, there are plot holes. It’s hard to believe that the pair’s mission president would sit still and wait for the missionaries to come to him. When he first makes contact with Carson, he expects them to arrive in hours, yet days pass by with no appearance by LDS authorities or consulate representatives to rescue the pair. That’s not a huge objection, though. The isolation the missionaries experience, along with the constant threads of danger that arrive every few pages, are what makes this pulp fiction work so well.
You can buy “Millstone City” here. It’s available as a book or download. It merits more readers. Unfortunately, like most quality LDS fiction, it’s not available at Deseret Book or its junior publishers. Those booksellers still sell Pabulum fiction. Buy this novel. Despite this review, I still haven’t touched on more than a small fraction of its positive traits.