Toom Taggart

(creator: Paul M Edwards)

Paul M Edwards
Dr Toom Taggart is dean in charge of the educational programme at the RLDS ( Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) headquarters in Independence, Missouri, where he is both department director and dean of the graduate program. There he happily wears hounds-tooth tweed with leather patches on the elbows, violating "the all-but-sacred dress coat of red, white, and navy blue". When we first meet him, he is in his 53rd year with some greying hair. "On a good day he stood six feet and hovered around 250 pounds.... He wore a well trimmed salt and pepper beard that he tended to rub when he was pondering - or when he pretended to be pondering."

It was his PhD from Edinburgh that had got him his job. He was a "word spinner" and was expected "to provide justifications for what ever irrational expectations were passed off as church policy. He was, by his own identification, a cranial prostitute. He was pretty good at it .... His primary problem - and sometimes it became a serious problem - was that he did not share the same level of commitment to the movement that was a natural life pattern for so many." He could not be described as "an orthodox believer" for he had decided that "the divine existed without defined purpose, without engaging humans in any kind of intimate relationship."

Toom had inherited a a high degree of skepticism from his parents and for years had hovered on the windy side of agnosticism." He explains, "I have faith in the idea, not in how the church actually works. Faith - maybe hope would be a better word - is what keeps me here." But he cannot help asking, "Why are we sitting here in a sixty-million-office building posing as a church that is interested in people when there are folks within a few blocks of us who can't get enough to eat?" One wonders how closely Toom resembled the author. Edwards himself says, "Much of what is written about emerges from my own background. So in that sense it is autobiographical. But, I repeat, it is only a story."

Although Toom does not hesitate to attack the bureaucracy and ineffective management of the church, he had accepted the priesthood (exactly what this means is not explained). He still has an invalid institutionalized wife whom he apparently visits regularly (although none of these visits is described). She seems to be seriously mentally ill (but once again we are not told exactly what is wrong with her). He drinks coffee even if "The Word of Wisdom tells us not to". (What the Word of Wisdom is, is not explained either.) But he is a lively curmudgeon of a character.

Dr Paul M(adison) Edwards (1933 - ) is the author or co-author of numerous books, nearly all non-fiction, ranging from philosophy to six books about the Korean War of which he was a veteran. With a PhD from St. Andrews University in Scotland, he was a Professor of Philosophy at Park University in Kansas City, and went on to found and direct Graceland's Center for the Study of the Korean War at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, which is a liberal arts college run by The Community of Christ (previously known as RLDS, The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) whose members prefer not to call themselves Mormons. He has been a past director of the RLDS Temple School in Independence, Missouri, as well as president of the John Whitmer Historical Association and the Mormon History Association, so is well qualified to write on Mormon matters.

The Angel Acronym (2002)
The Angel Acronym was the first of a series of books featuring Toom Taggart. Toom is department director of the education department at the headquarters of RLDS (the Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) in Independence, Missouri. When one of his staff, the Church archivist, is found dead, Toom is not convinced by the public relations department's smooth explanation of what had happened, and feels obliged to look into the matter, if only because, as he explains, "I was probably just bored".

Despite instructions from his bishop to write a new book on angels (difficult, as he doesn't believe in them), he prefers to spend his time working out an intricate matrix showing the improbable coincidences that had to converge to produce the Church archivist's death. This eventually enables him to identify the murderer. It all springs from a supposed 19th century attempt to forge a section of the First Book of Mormon (indeed this is how the book starts, but it is all pretty incomprehensible to anyone who does not already know about Mormon beliefs), but it does not make a very exciting story, and the author seems strangely reluctant to provide enough background information. Who, for example, are "a group of camera-bedecked Bountifulites from Utah"? and a joke about "The habits of Seven Highly Effective Dwarfs" doesn't work until the author explains, many pages later, what it is a reference to. And there are jokes about polygamy too that do not mean much to outsiders.

There is a lack of suspense about the storytelling, and it is difficult to take the denouement too seriously as it depends on Toom telling the police that there was something they did not know about the poison gas used for the murder - an area in which it seems quite incredible that they did not find out more for themselves.

The strength of the story lies in the humor with which the author attacks the petty bureaucracies of his church, including criticisms which could surely be made of many other ecclesiastical organisations. I enjoyed the references to "the studiously sweet Utah missionaries" and the church historian who blocked out two afternoons a week for research, and about twice a month "actually made it to the archives where he sometimes spent as much as 45 minutes". And Toom describes the great temple where he works as standing "against the dark with a blinking light of its spire warning Gentiles off the jagged coastline off Mormondom". And a meeting, we are told, "went on longer than an evangelist's prayer".

Toom's criticism of his church seems deeply felt. As he tells his friend Marie, "We don't know what we believe in as a church .... We go to church to watch someone act as if they had been moved by love when in fact, they're following the program .... We perform according to the ritual now. We testify, but our testimonies are mostly memories of someone else's experiences." And even amongst the Latter Day Saints. "The churches could not agree about theological issues, but it took an expert to determine exactly why not".

This book may well have offended insiders (although they may have had fun working out who was who) and been not entirely comprehensible to outsiders. Even so I would recommend it for its sheer verve and wit.

Murder by Sacrament (2014)
Murder by Sacrament is set a year later than the first book, and was published much later (did the church authorities disapprove of it?). It too is set in the RLDS church's Independence, Mo. headquarters, this time just before the RLDS church changed its name to Community of Christ. (RLDS stands for Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints - something that the author does not bother to explain here).

Someone is killing major church donors. The first donor is killed drinking poisoned grape juice (the sacrament in the church's temple), and another is killed sampling chocolates at an expensive church party. However, Toom, with the aid of his friend, Police Lieutenant Amos Kincaid, finally identifies the murderer.

The author takes his usual sardonic look at how the church is run, as when he explains, "The guiding force behind all the public decision-making was the Mission Integration, Service, Function, and Interpretation team, or MISFIT, a strange acronym that had long lost its sense of irony to the ears of the bureaucrats."

Toom himself remains an engaging character who is nothing if not resourceful as when he flushed the leftover bread and juice from communion down the toilet. When unreasonably asked for attendance statistics, he was quite prepared to make them up as necessary, and he is always ready to stand up to bossy Elders. He enjoys a "platonic relationship" with the church's legal representative Marie. He remains a fascinating character, always in trouble with the authorities who object to the unpaid extra teaching he chooses to do elsewhere. "That's a hobby," he tries to explain to his annoyed President. One of his other hobbies is to collect books with unusual titles, such as Louis Lasagna's Obesity: Causes, Consequences, and Treatments and Some Examples of Motion in Fluids by Gordon Crapper. He finds these "remarkably funny", even if they soon get rather tedious for the reader. But then "he doesn't think the same way everybody else."

The author himself is also nothing if not idiosyncratic, as he has added numerous supposedly handwritten comments to a number of pages as shown below:

In this case there appears to be no connection between "hush puppies" and "fried green tomatoes" and the text! It works better when the connection is obvious, but even then it too soon grows tedious, particularly when messages like "Go to page 161" lead you on a wild goose chase.

Even so, the book remains a good read and, with all the in-fighting that goes on between Toom and the Elders, is surprisingly entertaining. The murder plot may be slow in developing and cannot be described as very exciting, but the Mormon background, and the author's critical attitude to it, certainly hold the interest.

Most of the web references to the author are to his books, particularly those about the Korean War. But there is a review of The Angel Acronym in a pdf file on the Sunstone site. To access this, look up The Not-so-Angelic Adventures of Toom Taggart on Google.

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The Angel Acronym cover
The cover is nothing if not mysterious. The book is fun to read, but Mormon beliefs are never really explained.
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