The Patron Saint of Detectives
Faith and reason in Ralph McInerny's Father Dowling stories.


While some suspension of disbelief may be required as to the number of murders that could possibly occur in and around a small community like Fox River, the stories are nevertheless well constructed and lead to further reflections on the complex motivations of the human heart. The story “Imaginary Sins,” for example, dwells on the unanticipated consequences of actions. The world is a complicated place, where sometimes bad intentions are negated by good effects and vice versa. Moreover, sometimes even the people closest to us do not realize our intentions, leading to further confusion and, as in this story, years of destructive misunderstanding.

Even the seemingly more abstruse areas of Catholic life can provide the backdrop to a mystery. In A Cardinal Offense, a Father Dowling novel published in 1994, a series of murders is touched off by the impending annulment of the first victim’s marriage. (In Catholicism, an annulment is a decree by a Church court that a marriage be declared a nullity, i.e., that it never existed. This is different from a divorce, which is a civil judgment ending an existing marriage.) Whether a marriage existed at all drives to the very heart of what marriage is, and what it means in a world of easy divorce. The sacredness of the marriage bond and the complexity of the Church’s teaching on marriage are discussed and, moreover, treated seriously, even if some of the characters do not agree with the teaching. McInerny uses this seriousness as an instrument of the plot, as it provides motivation and explanation for some of the actions, including the murders.

This is perfect territory for a mystery novel, and McInerny does not disappoint, throwing in Notre Dame football, campus radicals, and a character modeled on then-Cardinal Ratzinger for good measure. Dowling, a veteran of the diocesan annulment courts, moves among his roles of counselor, confessor, and mystery-solver, surrounded by McInerny’s regular cast of characters, including the patrician lawyer Amos Cadbury, the not-so-patrician lawyer Tuttle, police officers Phil Keegan and Cy Horvath, and Marie, the parish housekeeper.

In rereading these stories, one is struck as much by the subtlety of the characters and the plots as by the ambience of a Catholic culture that is largely no more. While McInerny’s dialogue has more polemical punch than Chesterton’s (McInerny, a vocal participant in the culture wars, offers comments on the changes wrought in the Church that may be of more interest to Catholic than to non-Catholic readers), nevertheless they do not overwhelm the narrative of a good crime story well told.

– Gerald J. Russello is the editor of The University Bookman. He has written widely on Catholic writers and the Catholic intellectual tradition.


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