Now here’s something that doesn’t pop up every day: ex-Mormon cipher fiction. In “Latter-Day Cipher“, Latayne C. Scott has crafted quite an interesting piece of work, combining the US police procedural genre (where in this case the main protagonist is a female journalist parachuted in from outside) with a kind of veil-lifting piece on the inner workings of the Mormon Church. It’s populated by a cast of characters so tortured by their own doubts about the, let’s say, veridicality of the gospels, history, and practices of the Church of Latter Day Saints (‘LDS’) that they behave in extreme ways (thus driving the plot), with some of them leading double lives.

The “cipher” of the book’s title doesn’t refer to our old favourite the Anthon Transcript: rather, the notes left with the (near-inevitable) series of dead bodies are written in the Deseret Alphabet, a late 19th century phonetic alphabet constructed at the University of Deseret (which morphed into the University of Utah – “Deseret” is a term supposedly used in the Book of Mormon to denote “honeybee”, and in fact Utah’s state symbol is still a beehive) to help immigrants learn English quickly and reliably. The real thing looks like this (from 1868, courtesy of Wikipedia), which begins “W-u-n / ah-v / thee / w-u-r-s-t…”)

Sample Deseret text from 1868

Given that this is a phonetic alphabet, and only one of the Deseret Alphabet notes in “Latter-Day Cipher” is written in a slightly encrypted way (I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say that it’s phonetic Spanish), Scott’s book isn’t really historical cipher fiction per se. But all the same, she’s clearly achieved her writing aims, and her story moves along briskly. She paints pictures of the troubled internal dynamics of people wobbling either side of the edge of the Mormon doctrinal line, interleaving its contradictory paradoxes (polygamy, racial purity, blood atonement, etc) with a ticking bomb and lines from Tennyson and T.S.Eliot.

With all these different themes running through it, you may well ask, is “Latter-Day Cipher” any good? Well, yes it is, actually. It would probably help if you knew a (very) little about the whole Mormon thing beforehand, but I do so enjoy getting to read nicely-written novels that aren’t all testosterone, flashy editing and world-renowned Harvard academics solving historical ciphers at gunpoint. Enjoy!

PS: in the great pantheon of literary attacks on the LDS, this is no more than a fly bouncing off an almost entirely indifferent whale, and I somehow doubt that it will manage to steer a single person away from the LDS’ comforting weltanschauung bosom. Still, wouldn’t it be awesome if South Park was right, and God is a Buddhist presiding over a Mormon-only heaven? Ummm… probably! 🙂

5 thoughts on “Review of Latayne C. Scott’s “Latter-Day Cipher”…

  1. I can’t adequately express how gratifying it is to me, an author, to have such a thoughtful review. I really appreciate the fact that you caught so many of the literary allusions and other “easter egg” type elements of the book. Thank you so much. Latayne C Scott

  2. Dennis on August 17, 2010 at 7:24 am said:

    An interesting idea and it sounds like a good read! The Deseret alphabet reminds me somewhat of Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary.

    Incidentally, the Mormons proclaimed a State of Deseret and set up a government for it, though the US federal government never recognized it. The territory that the federal government did organize for settlement was named the Utah Territory.

  3. This is all new to me. Thank you.

  4. bdid1dr on October 21, 2015 at 4:22 pm said:

    Nick & Mr. Scott,
    You might want to look into more recent activities of the radical Mormon leader who had multiple wives (one or two of the wives were not even into their teens at the time of the marriage and its consummation). He was eventually captured — and he died in prison.
    I haven’t read anything lately about the Canadian radical Mormon encampments.
    If you haven’t already written about another early Mormon activity (Mountain Meadows Massacre — and John Smith) there is still a lot of “food for thought” — and maybe another novel? You might like to read a novel by Nevada Barr, whose heroine’s (Park Ranger) name is “Anna Pigeon”. I can’t remember the title of the book, but it involves a man who compulsorily ‘marries’ teen-age girls. Anna comes to the rescue once again. (Nevada Barr writes many novels based on her experience as a National Parks Ranger in the U.S.)

  5. bdid1dr on October 22, 2015 at 3:18 pm said:

    Latayne, I will be attempting to view your link, shortly. It sounds like a ‘humdinger’ !
    aka: beady-eyed wonder

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