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Bombs, grift, true crime: Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons almost had it all

Murder Among the Mormons should have been all about obsessive Mormon book nerds instead of its dweeby killer.

Shannon Flynn in Murder Among the Mormons.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Murder Among the Mormons, Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries, feels weirdly bloated and malnourished all at once.

The three-part series, from filmmakers Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and Tyler Measom (Jesus Town, USA), has a fascinating canvas to work with: a cast of obsessive Mormons and Mormon-adjacent Utahans, all connected by their interest in rare documents and other antiques. It’s the kind of niche geekery that makes for a ripe subject even without the double murder at the series’ center.

In this case, the double murder and the murderer himself are both fascinating — but not nearly as much as the stories around the story. The crime involved two separate bomb attacks on two different Salt Lake City antiques investors, Steven Christensen and Gary Sheets. The first bomb exploded in a downtown office building and killed Christensen instantly; the second bomb killed Sheets’s wife, Kathy Sheets.

The attacks were the culmination of a years-long grift involving elaborate forgery, the fabrication of “authentic” historical documents, and confidence-man scheming, with the Mormon church as the main target. And while the show treats that revelation as a spoiler, both the killer and their motive will be obvious to the audience fairly early on.

This is one of many ways Murder Among the Mormons seems to strike just shy of its targets. It wants very hard to portray its central figure, Mark Hofmann, as mystifying. It wants to portray Mormonism as an intimidating shadow that loomed over the events that unfolded in Salt Lake City in 1985, when the two deaths occurred and when the church was embroiled in controversy over the events surrounding the crime. And it definitely wants to portray its lead guest, Shannon Flynn, as the latest Kooky True Crime Character.

But none of these elements have the most interesting potential in Murder Among the Mormons, nor do they quite stack up the way the docuseries would like.

Murder Among the Mormons has a great hook, but it needed better world building

For all it’s clearly targeting the true crime audiences who flocked to 2020’s Tiger King, Murder Among the Mormons just doesn’t have the same level of quirkiness, or as bizarre a cast of characters, to produce a similar level of tawdry spectacle. The main reason is that the show builds itself around Hofmann, painting him from its first line as a man who is both larger than life and a scoundrel.

But Hofmann comes off in the series primarily as a glorified dweeb: a scrawny, transparent charlatan who managed to use his passion, book dealing, to manipulate the larger and much more fascinating worlds of Mormonism and rare book collection. The docuseries is so focused on Hofmann that it almost forgets to focus on the murders; while Steven Christensen gets his share of attention, Kathy Sheets barely gets more than a mention; she’s practically a footnote in her own murder. Meanwhile, you’ll be tired of Hofmann’s dorky ’80s side part and reedy little voice in five minutes.

The much more intriguing story, one we only get glimpses of, is how Hofmann managed to manipulate his audiences. At one point in the documentary, just in passing, we learn that Hofmann, who was basically writing elaborate fanfic and passing it off as authentic rare documents, may have forged poems by Emily Dickinson and other authors. Really? We don’t even get to hear about fake Emily Dickinson, or who fell for fake Emily Dickinson, or the process by which Hofmann identified his targets and conned them?

At several other points, we hear the collectors themselves described as motivated by “greed.” But what does that mean? What were they greedy for? Were they all engaged in some nebulous high-stakes seedy antique-dealing underground, or did they just want to own a nice copy of this letter by their favorite author? I have so many questions about the many unseen or barely seen collectors involved in this tale.

And then there’s the Mormon church itself. At the outset, mainly thanks to the few seconds we see of a hokey ’70s propaganda film about Moroni the angel appearing to Mormon founder Joseph Smith, the documentary sets up the idea that the Mormon church is a delicately constructed house of cards. It implies repeatedly that the church was susceptible to manipulation at the hands of one con artist — Hofmann — because it was built upon an elaborate series of lies told by another con artist — Smith.

This could be an electrifying takeaway, especially since many viewers mainly know Mormonism only through the South Park dudes. But Murder Among the Mormons flits away from a deeper look at the Mormon church, denying us the context to really understand the relationship between the church and the forger in its midst. What does it matter that the church might have been buying documents to prevent them from wider circulation? Was the church buying documents? What would that have done to the average Mormon’s faith? Was Hofmann’s attempt to forge “authentic” Mormon documents the modern-day equivalent of “extra-canonical” books of the Bible — much like the Book of Mormon itself?

The lack of attention to these questions makes Murder Among the Mormons seem thin in all the places where it should be richest as a narrative. Its treatment of Shannon Flynn is perhaps the best example of this. Throughout the documentary, Flynn, who appears in a three-piece suit complete with pocket watch and bow tie and speaks in a high, raspy near-whisper, comes across as a mildly sinister gatekeeper to the circus. A longtime friend of Hofmann’s, he had a front-row seat to the events that led up to the bombings, and the show implies at several points that he was maybe, somehow, involved.

As the series’ resident Shady Guy, though, Flynn doesn’t really hold up. He speaks with too much perspective on the entire situation, and too much wry awareness about both Hofmann and himself. Murder Among the Mormons thus fails to deliver our newest Tiger King or its latest Carole Baskin. With stronger world building, we could have had a fantastic geekgasmic tale about rare book collectors and the documents they yearn for, and a culty religion whose power rests on lying to its members about its origin stories. That these stories are present, but not center stage, is a dull testament to true crime’s fascination with its villains. But in this case, the villain wasn’t nearly as fascinating as the world the filmmakers didn’t quite build.

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