Reviewed by Laura Compton for the Association for Mormon Letters
Just in time for summer comes Tristi Pinkston's comedic mystery, *Secret Sisters.* It's a light-hearted adventure with a Relief Society president-turned spy in small-town Utah in a package small enough to take on any warm-weather vacation.
Any woman who’s worried about visiting teaching assignments or shared a "Good News Moment" or prepared a meal or a plate of cookies for a fellow sister and her family will be able to relate to at least some of the characters in the book. And anyone who's wanted to relieve the burdens of an overwhelmed bishop will get a chuckle out of Ida Mae Babbitt and her Relief Society counselors as they "sustain" their local leader.
Ida Mae and counselors Arlette and Tansy are "women of a certain age" who are tasked with watching over the Omni 2nd Ward sisters. When visiting teaching reports come in that a young family in the ward is short on cash and the cupboards are bare, the Relief Society presidency kicks into gear to find out what’s wrong and solve the problem.
With the stealth of practiced caregivers, they converge on Nick and Mary Dunn’s home with uplifting words, warm food and a "call your visiting teachers" magnet that has a hidden camera inside. After all, how else would they be sure Nick really was on his way home from work with groceries for the little kids?
Later that evening, while sitting in the car surveilling the Dunns' home via laptop and refrigerator magnet, the ladies discover all might not be well for the little family. While Nick did bring back groceries, there seemed to be some problems, and the presidency decides they need to learn more in order to help out best. So Ida Mae's nephew, the one who built the hidden-camera magnet, goes to work creating a listening device as well and he and the counselors concoct another scheme to get into the Dunns' home yet again:
"I will take responsibility for placing the camera," Ida Mae said, shaking her finger at him, "but you didn’t place that bug under the auspices of the Relief Society. I will not protect you if that comes to light." She said this firmly, knowing full well she’d bail him out if she had to.
"We need to tell the bishop about this," Arlette proclaimed, and Ida Mae nodded. Things had gone way too far. They needed to pull out while they could. But Tansy spoke up.
"But we can't! I was over to see Sister Sylvester just last night. She's still on bed rest, and her sister has come to live and take care of things. The poor bishop's blood pressure has only gone down two points, and the medication they put him on isn't helping. Please, let's not, Ida Mae. Please."
Ida Mae rolled her eyes at the ceiling. It was one thing to take care of a few problems without the bishop's knowledge, but it was quite another to listen to someone else's private conversations.
Throughout the adventures, we get clues that Ida Mae has her own demons to fight as she struggles to overcome her own tendencies to judge others unfairly, and as she provides sage advice to young overwhelmed mothers, to widows, to parents of wayward children, and to her own nephew.
At one point, Ida Mae tells one of her young Relief Society mothers, "You know what, Heidi, I don't think that any woman on earth measures up to this 'perfect Mormon woman' image we've all got in our heads. I don't even know what started that nasty rumor in the first place. I don't think we’re supposed to be perfect about everything all the time – I just think we're supposed to be the very best we can be."
And the Secret Sisters try to be the best mystery solvers Omni's ever had. There are a few times when their antics are a bit over-the-top: The DMV fiasco and the knitting-needles-and-frying-pan incident come quickly to mind, and perhaps their detective skills need some honing. But these incidents – and others like them – put the "comedy" part into the "comedic mystery" genre.
Pinkston uses some character clichés common to Mormon fiction – bad guys who smoke, young men turning into missionary-types at the request of a cute girl – but they're not distracting. And the final wrap-up includes both rewards and punishments, something that is often missing in novels about amateur sleuths.
It will be fun to see what new adventures Ida Mae and her crew stumble upon in future novels, and it will be interesting to see how they work together to overcome each other's weaknesses. But whether they truly stumble into another problem or whether they become anxiously engaged in searching for problems to solve is a mystery for another day.