It is still hailed by cops and news hounds alike as the most sensational crime in Utah history:
Three years ago today a pipe bomb exploded in Mark Hofmann's Toyota sports car, critically injuring the mild-mannered historical documents dealer. That bombing, the third in two days, set detectives on a twisting, turning investigative trail that not only revealed Hofmann as a remorseless killer, but uncovered scores of masterful forgeries and frauds intended to undermine the very foundation of the LDS Church.Some experts even went so far as to call Hofmann the best American forger ever.
Little wonder the complex workings of Hofmann's crimes and the precedent-setting detective techniques that broke the case pricked the interest of publishing houses on both coasts.
Currently, three books deal with the Hofmann case: "The Mormon Murders," by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith; "A Gathering of Saints," by Robert Lindsey; and "Salamander," by Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts.
All three take a different approach to relating the crimes and all three come to different conclusions.
All three seek to tell the perfect story of murder, forgery and fraud. All three fall far short of perfection.
There's a temptation to call the three books "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." But a more accurate description would be "The Okay, The Encyclopedic and The Laughably Bad."
You want painstaking accuracy? Buy "Salamander." But be prepared to wade through page after page of mind-numbing minutia.
You want an exciting detective thriller? Read "Gathering of Saints." But you have to be willing to overlook a litany of misconceptions and stereotypes.
You want conspiracy-laden fiction? "Mormon Murders" is a captivating roller coaster. But it's as factual as a Robert Ludlum novel.
"The Mormon Murders" (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, New York, 458 pages) is unquestionably the most controversial of the Hofmann books, and with good reason. Not only is it a mean-spirited diatribe against the LDS Church and everything held sacred by the church, but the entire premise of the book is that the murders, frauds and forgeries were indirectly caused by the church.
Not only are the multitude of conspiracies and conclusions presented by Naifeh and Smith outrageously misdirected, but the book gives only lip service to the truly amazing detective work that unraveled the crimes - detective work that has set the standard for forgery detection worldwide.
But most unforgivable about "The Mormon Murders" is the blatant exaggerations and editorializing.
As ridiculous as the exaggerations are, they set the tone for the entire book. Page after page, chapter after chapter, it just gets progressively worse.
But if exaggerating the facts of the case weren't enough, the authors butcher Mormon history, they ridicule people past and present, and they almost excuse Mark Hofmann as a victim of his circumstances. And they top everything off with detailed, word-for-word conversations with individuals who refused to even talk with Naifeh and Smith.
In short, Naifeh and Smith wrote their book as they thought the case should have been, not as it really was.
On the other hand, "A Gathering of Saints" (Simon & Schuster, 397 pages) makes an honest attempt to present the case as seen through the eyes of investigators.
Lindsey does a superb job of interviewing investigating officers and weaving a first-rate detective yarn. As the case unfolds, you find yourself riveted to the pages, savoring tantalizing details as sleuths uncover one piece of evidence after another.
The book has its weaknesses. Lindsey ("Falcon and the Snowman") tends to stereotype LDS people (i.e., a Mormon's true measure of success is to be wealthy) and oversimplifies LDS policy and doctrine, all of which leads to inaccuracies and misconceptions. But compared to "Mormon Murders," the problems are minimal.
Throughout the book, Lindsey does a good job of keeping an overall perspective. He describes Terri Christensen's marriage to bombing victim Steven as not perfect, but "happier than she ever expected" with "problems no greater than those in most marriages." That, in fact, was the case.
On the other hand, Naifeh and Smith describe the marriage as a rocky union that resulted in frequent tears and disappointment for Terri - to the point she threatened to leave him.
Lindsey was right; Naifeh and Smith were wrong, as they are on most incidents recounted in "The Mormon Murders."
"Salamander" probably does the best job of accurately portraying the Utah culture, the beliefs of the LDS Church and the effects of the forgeries on the church.
Both "Gathering of Saints" and the "Mormon Murders" are written by outsiders, the former by a New York Times reporter from California and the latter by two New Yorkers. As a result, none of the three non-Utah writers capture the unique character of Utah and LDS culture the way "Salamander" does.
The amount of information tucked in the pages of "Salamander" is impressive, and the footnoting lends an air of accuracy unparalleled by the other two books, though it's often distracting.
But the book is also a bit too exhaustive, making it read in places like a police report. It's the "Dragnet" book of the three: "Just the facts, ma'am."
"Gathering of Saints" manages the same story and does it better by leaving out a lot of the detail and instead focusing on an easier-to-read story full of real-life characters and color. And it's a story that can be understood by people who have never heard of Mark Hofmann and know nothing about the LDS Church.
Which one is the winner?
Because of the publicity and controversy surrounding "The Mormon Murders," Naifeh and Smith will undoubtedly make a lot of money. But when all the chips are counted and the movies are filmed, "A Gathering of Saints" will come out the real winner. And from a Utah perspective, don't overlook "Salamander."