The classic detective story is a morality play. Good, in the form of deductive reasoning and empirical observation, wins out over evil, at least to the extent of uncovering the murderer and exposing him to justice. The detective story at its best allows the full range of human motivation, from hatred and greed to a desire for redemption, to play out in limitless ways. Moreover, given the universality of human emotion, the settings for a good detective story can be just as varied, from country houses to urban offices.
It is no surprise, then, that some enterprising novelists have drawn on this tradition to create a peculiar literary character: the priest-detective. The best example of this is G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, who featured in over 50 stories and was based on John O’Connor, a priest who figured strongly in Chesterton’s conversion. In the stories, an intrepid priest takes on the crimes of the Edwardian age, facing them with a sure faith in the supernatural combined with a profound grasp of reason and the potentialities of human evil. Neither sentimental nor coldly logical, the priest-detective represented, as Chesterton saw it, the Western intellectual tradition in balance.
The United States has seen several exemplars of the priest-detective, including Father Roger Dowling, pastor of St. Hilary’s Church, a small parish in seemingly bucolic Fox River, Illinois. Dowling is the creation of Ralph McInerny, a Catholic intellectual who has spent most of his career teaching philosophy at Notre Dame. Over the years, McInerny has written more than two dozen Father Dowling novels, as well as a separate series of mystery novels under the pen name Monica Quill, featuring Sister Mary Teresa. The Father Dowling series has been popular, rating even a four-season television series, starring actor Tom Bosley of Happy Days
The Wisdom of Father Dowling has just come out, and this collection of 15 short stories featuring the eponymous hero illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. Its title invokes The Wisdom of Father Brown, which is probably Chesterton’s best collection, and the two priests share several characteristics. The centrality of reason is one: McInerny, like Chesterton, is a committed Thomist, and the respect for reasoning is evident throughout Scholastic philosophy. Nevertheless, Dowling, like Brown, is also a committed priest, and the twin concerns for physical reality and metaphysical salvation are combined when he is looking to solve a crime. Other shared characteristics include a wry sense of humor and the enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life, such as friendship.
One example of the combined resources of Dowling is found in the story “Hic Jacet,” a Latin phrase meaning “Here he lies.” Without giving away too much of the plot, I can report that Dowling solves the mystery and confronts the murderer. Rather than turning him in for an old and forgotten crime, however, the priest instead grants absolution. The combination of the rational and the supernatural in these stories illuminates McInerny’s conviction that faith and reason can act together, and should, and that while crimes might be solved through reason, forgiveness is a grace, though not part of the criminal-justice system. Even when Dowling is more bystander than participant, he remains a priest. In “Anathema Sits,” for example, Dowling solves the crime almost by accident, and the story would work with some hard-boiled city detective rather than a priest as protagonist — except for the absolution of the murderer at the end. As a stylist, McInerny makes full use of the range of detective-story devices: plot twists, unlikely suspects, misdirection, and grisly discoveries. At the core of these stories, however, is a concern for plumbing the mystery of the human condition.