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 fame.
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.
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.