Father Crumlish

(creator: Alice Scanlan Reach)


Alice Scanlan Reach
Father Francis Xavier Crumlish is the old, compassionate, Irish Catholic parish priest, who limps "a little from the arthritis buried deep in his ancient roots", and suffers from a corn on his left toe. Not that he admits to being old: "Old, was he! Why, if it wasn't for the in misery plaguing his bones, the occasional shortage of breath (nothing but gas), he could pass for - well, 65 maybe? True, he couldn't say Mass without his bifocals. But his snow- white hair was still thick."

At the age of fourteen (or, according to another story, twelve), he had left his native Tralee in County Kerry to enter a preparatory seminary in America. Then he had spent most of the 48 years since he was ordained working in St Brigid's Parish - "that weary bedraggled section of Lake City's waterfront where destitution and despair, avarice and evil, walked hand in hand. And although, on the occasions when he lost a battle with the Devil, he too sometimes teetered on the brink of despair, he unfailingly rearmed himself with his intimate, hard-won knowledge of his people."

He delights in playing the organ: "Believing himself alone - with his God and Maker, the descendant of a long line of shillelagh wielders ran his arthritic fingers over the organ's keys and poured out his soul in song. Presently the church rafters rang with his versions of 'When Irish Eyes are Smiling', 'Come Back to Erin', and 'The Rose of Tralee'." He enjoys what chance he gets of wearing a brightly colored sports shirt and watching a Giants baseball game on TV, and is perhaps over-fond of cookies, but, as a kind, gentle pastor, never spares himself when it comes to looking after the needs of the people of his parish.

Alice Scanlon Reach began her writing career as a reporter on a Buffalo, New York, daily paper. During the Second World War, she became the Assistant Director at the Office of War Information in New York. In 1961 she won the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's best first story award for In the Confessional (reviewed below) and went on to publish a total of thirteen short stories in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines in the 1960s, all featuring Father Francis Xavier Crumlish. (Beside each title in the list below, I show the date of the relevant issue.) She also wrote the lyrics for Spring in Manhattan and Blossom Dearie. After her husband died in 1970, she went to live at Boynton Beach, Florida.

In the Confessional (June 1962) was the first of the Father Crumlish stories and has one of the best plots. it describes how a down-and-out called Blue often hides in the church so that he can steal (or "borrow" as he would call it) a few coins (for a bottle of wine) from the offering box. He accidentally overhears what is said to Father Crumlish in the confessional - and does not appreciate its significance, with tragic results for himself. It's a tight, well-told story with a totally convincing surprise ending. Recommended.
It was televised as one of the Orson Welles Great Mysteries series, produced by Anglia Television (an independent British TV company serving the commercial network for the east of England), in 1974. The part of Father Crumlish was played by Milo O'Shea.
The story is included in the anthologies Murder Most Divine, edited by Ralph McInerny and Martin E Greenberg, and Thou Shalt Not Kill, edited by Cynthia Manson.

The Ordeal of Father Crumlish (April 1963) starts with tired old Father Crumlish having to attend his own "private Purgatory", St Brigid's Annual Field Day Festival during which, as happens every year, he has to judge a baby contest, award prizes and finally "twirl the huge silver drum containing hundreds of raffle tickets, extract one, and thereby determine the winner of the new green sedan which had been blighting the lawn of St Brigid's School for the past four weeks."
The event is being held at the Silver Beach Bathing and Amusement Park which is on the Canadian side of the lake, but he gets a lift home in the car of ex-altar boy/tearaway, now police lieutenant, Big Tom Madigan. But he is not so pleased to get a phone call from Tom, just after he has dozed off. It seems that one of his young parishioners, 13-year-old Joey Glass, has been fatally knifed in a fight at the festival, and another of his boys is suspected of being the murderer. Father Crumlish says he cannot believe this because, "He gave me his word six months ago he'd stay out of trouble and his word is good enough to me." But Tom is not convinced. Then a barking dog gives Father Crumlish an idea, and, with the help of Tom and a local radio station, he devizes an ingenious plan on how to entrap the real criminal. Recommended.
It makes another effective story, brought alive by the humanity of Father Crumlish. It is included in the anthology Masterpieces of Mystery. Detective Directory: Part Two, selected by Ellery Queen.

The Gentle Touch (December 1963) is the only one of the stories that does not include Father Crumlish's name in the title. It describes how he was sitting counting the church collection, when he was surprised to find a $10 bill. Knowing that this was more than any of his congregation could afford, he was even more surprised to find another $10 bill in the collection the next week. Then he learns from Tom Madigan of the local police (whom he had saved as a teenager from a life of crime) that there had been "a little run of phoney $10 bills", all of them with the same number. He realises that he has been given two counterfeit bills. "What's the Devil up to now?" he wondered and sets off to find out.
He gets involved, not for the first time with a bullying father, Michael Bannon, and his badly bruised daughter, generally known as "Mad Mag", and he confronts him: "You've no right to beat that poor fuddled lass and you have done it for the last time .... If Maggie won't prefer charges against you, then I will." But then he gets a phone call from Tom at 2am in the morning to tell him that Bannon is dead after "Maggie cracked him over the head with something". Father Crumlish finds there is a connection between the dead man and the phoney notes, and with his help Tom Madigan solves the case - but the plot is not quite so interesting or ingenious as the previous ones.

The Heart of Father Crumlish (June 1964) sees him being visited by His Excellency, the Most Reverend Matthew Aloysius McFarland, Bishop of the Diocese of Lake City, whom he had known as Tubby McFarland when they had been at seminary together all those years ago. The Bishop had come to tell him, "You've got enough to do without trying to turn a broken down warehouse and a patch of weeds into a Recreation Center."
"I'd have less to do if I had some place to keep my young hooligans off the streets."
"Besides, you're too old to tackle a job like that."
After the Bishop had gone, Father Crumlish made use of his favorite expletive, "Hellfire!" before walking past the Green Gander Cafe, managed by Jake Barker, a "renegade rascal". Bounding out of it came Karl Dombrowski, "one of his hooligans who gave him more trouble than most". Father Crumlish decided to have a word with Jake Barker - but found him "sprawled on the floor, one side of his head resembling a bowl of crushed strawberries".
Father Crumlish soon persuades Tom Madigan of the local police to let him get involved in the investigation, and then makes an unexpected discovery in St Brigid's Lost and Found Department which leads him not only to solve the crime but to acquire the warehouse as well.

Father Crumlish and the Cherub Vase (October 1965) starts with Father Crumlish not enjoying himself at a meeting of the Menu Planning Committee for the Ladies' Aid Society's annual supper, as "The Battle of the Roast Chickens versus the Baked Hams had progressed to holocaustal proportions".
Then he is summoned to visit Andy, an Irish parishioner who tells him gloomily, "I had a terrible accident last night, Reverend. I ran out of money."
Father chuckled. "Then I suppose this isn't a day to ask you for a donation ... I foolishly promised the Ladies' Aid to provide a door prize for their annual supper."
The shopkeeper looked relieved. "Help yourself, Father."
"I'll just pick out a little something colourful," Father said and emerged with a vase, the hue and color of an overgrown summer squash surrounded by garlands of purple grapes, red rosebuds, and yellow daisies, the whole of it held up by three angelic pink cherubs."
But after this distinctive prize has been awarded, Andy suddenly tells Father Crumlish that he needs the vase back - and the winner is found murdered. And a stranger arrives in town, who has also been looking for the vase. When Father Crumlish arrives at the truth, it is more more by luck than detection, but he remains a very convincingy busy old priest who really knows and understands his people.

Father Crumlish and God's Will (May 1966) sees Father Crumlish having to carry out the "only one task that gave him pause: when it became necessary for him to face his parishioners - or worse yet, community businessmen - to plead for money." However, Henry Goldfarb of Goldfarb Bargain House proves to be a generous giver. But then, as Lieutenant Tom Madigan tells him, Goldfarb's secretary was "found in her office around midnight. Somebody cracked her skull."

Father Crumlish tells Madigan that he will be right along to help. "Hold it, Father," the policeman protested. "You know the regulations. I can't let you - ".
"And no young ex-hooligan who wouldn't be wearing a uniform if it weren't for God's help and his pastor's faith is going to shut me out," was the priest's immediate response.

When Henry Goldfarb himself comes under suspicion, even Father Crumlish cannot persuade him to be completely honest with the police. "He'd given his word. There was nothing more he could do now. Except pray." But then he remembers the pilfering that Goldfarb had told him about, and that "It's not money that's the root of all evil. It's the desire for it." So he set about finding who it was who desperately needed money, and this leads him to identify the guilty party.

Father Crumlish may be getting older but he is reluctant to admit it. "Why, aside from his present stomach distress, he never felt finer. Well, almost never. True, lately the misery plaguing his bones made kneeling a little harder. And sometimes, in the middle of a sermon, he seemed to run out of breath." But, as Goldfarb told him, "You know what my dad used to say about you? He said you were a hell of a great guy, a good priest, and a lousy businessman." Father Crumlish could not help but chuckle. He had "never hesitated to do battle with the Devil", and he had no intention of giving up now.

Father Crumlish and the Wolf (October 1966) has Crumlish trying to find out what has happened to $178 of ticket money stolen during the final dress rehearsal of St Bridgid's annual Spring Review. Surely the Devil had tempted and got the best of one of his flock - but which one of his lambs was a wolf in sheep's clothing?

This is by far the most entertaining of the Crumlesh stories. Each year Crumlesh regrets that he had ever hit on the idea of raising funds by putting on "a little home-grown entertainment". He knew from past experience that the curtain, due at seven o'clock, " would certainly not rise until after eight, and then only with the help of God and Saint Patrick".

Part of the problem was the perennial Mistress of Ceremonies, Tessie Winkler, who had inflicted herself on St Brigid's choir: "On first hearing her rendition of the Dies Irae, as he was saying a funeral Mass, Father Crumlesh was so distracted that he almost forgot to sprinkle the casket with holy water. It wasn't just the woman's strident voice or her dictatorship in running things that annoyed him. Her addiction to yellow clothing and golden hair colouring had something to do with it. The unlikely sight of her reminded the priest of a 200-pound lemon."

It is Tessie who hurries to tell him about the missing money. " 'Father!' she exclaimed in an agitated whisper. 'Something dreadful has happened.'
'Don't tell me now that we'll have to cancel the review?' Father said as he got to his feet. Despite himself, a note of wistful hope had crept into his query."

Crumlesh, or just Father as the author sometimes calls him, decides that he will look into the theft himself rather than involve the police. He wanted first to have a chance "to try to save some poor soul from the stigma of a criminal record. And for the sake of $178 - well, he'd rather pay it out of his own pocket and see one of his Flock go to jail". How he'd find the money is not explained.

A battered yellow rose that had been found with the stolen money gives him a clue when he sees Tessie clutching a large bouquet of artificial yellow roses as she began to "rattle the rafters" with Roses of Picardy. 'Ro-zez air shi-neeng een Pickardee - '
The pastor winced. Whenever she sank this selection, Tessie embellished the second chorus by throwing roses to the audience. And since she had a powerful pitching arm .... the priest knew that tomorrow night, in his customary front-row-centrer seat, he'd be pelted left and right with roses, one of which was bound to catch him squarely in the eye."

It's a real pity that none of the other stories are as amusing as this one, and it leaves you wishing that they too had not always been concerned with murder, which perhaps offers less opportunities for humor. However, this is a thoroughly entertaining story. Recommended.

Father Crumlish and His People (May 1967) starts with a revolver being fired to the accompaniment of a woman's agonised scream. But Father Crumlish knew that the "death dealing sounds" came from a TV set in the second-floor room of the Rectory, occupied by his formidable housekeeper, Emma Catt. So he has to answer a phone call himself, although he "promised himself that today he would put his foot down on Emma, once and all. At the same time he reluctantly admitted that it was a promise he frequently made but never kept."

The call came from Big Tom Madigan who told him that a woman had been murdered and "it might be the work of one of your boys," 19-year-old George Nelson, who had once stabbed to death a member of his own gang. After serving seven out of his ten years sentence, he had "thanks to the pastor's tireless efforts", been paroled, and at Father Crumlish's suggestion, had been employed by the dead woman as a gardener-handyman.

"There was very little that he (Father Crumlish) didn't know about the people who lived, work, and died in the depressed and bedraggled section of Lake City where his parish was located. Some of them were his own 'lambs', some his 'strays', some were members of other faiths, and some had no religious affiliations at all. But the pastor of St Brigid's believed that all of them were his people. They came to him with their troubles and triumphs - and if they didn't, he sought them out." But even he is surprised to find that Nelson was not the only ex-criminal that the dead woman had employed. And it turns out that she had been far from being the benevolent, generous woman that he had always supposed.

Prompted by noticing a supermarket list of special offers, on which Emma had checked off a number of the items which she intended to buy (Father Crumlish was afraid "he'd probably be eating tuna fish sandwiches for lunch for the remainder of his mortal days"), he is able to challenge the criminal's alibi and solve the case.

Father Crumlish Celebrates Christmas (January 1968) describes how the busy, tired old Father Crumlish gets involved with Charley Abbott, a parishioner, terrified that he will be accused of murder, who is about to jump off a roof. Crumley not only has to try to talk him down, but soon sees that he will have to solve the murder too.
And there's also the problem of the missing statuettes from the church's nativity scene. After replacing them ("It would be cheaper if you preached a sermon on stealing," his housekeeper tells him), he sets off to visit Charley's boss but typically "Although his destination was only a few minutes' walk, it was all of half an hour before he arrived. He'd been detained on the way in order to halt a fist fight or two, admire a new engagement ring, console a recently bereaved widow, and steer homeward a parishioner who had been trying to drain dry the beer tap in McCaffery's Tavern." It is details like these that bring the story to life - the murder being solved surprisingly easily.
The story ends with the author giving us the recipe for Father Crumley's Christmas cookies which his housekeeper had put aside as a Christmas present for Crumley's old friend Lieutenant "Big Tom" Madigan of the local police. "Is there any law against my giving you your present now?" asks Father Crumlish.
"Not that I know of, Father," Madigan replied, grinning.
"And in the true Christmas spirit, Tom," Father Crumlesh's eyes twinkled merrily, "I'm sure you'll want to share and share alike."
The story can be found in the anthologies Murder at Christmas and Merry Murder, both edited by Cynthia Manson.

Father Crumlish Defies the Impossible (January 1969) starts with the arrival at the rectory of a young man in a multi-hued sports shirt. "Never had the priest seen the likes of it. And Father Crumlesh was a connoisseur of colourful shirtings. Indeed, although less than a handful of the souls in his parish or, for that matter, in all Lake City, were aware of it, St Brigid's priest usually wore bright-patterned sports attire beneath the dark, somber cloth of his calling. And why not, he reasoned. After all, his Master was the Maker of rainbows."

The visitor turns out to be Patrick Ireland whom Crumlesh had discovered, left as a baby in his church, 19 years before, and whom he had not seen for years but who tells him that he intends to trace his parents. Crumlesh promises to try to find him a job at the Cullen Iron Works where the president, Ned Cullen, had often offered a helping hand to his needy parishioners. And he suggests to Ireland that he should step over to the church, and "Say a prayer to St Jude and ask him to put in a word for you with the good Lord." It was St Jude, he reminds him, who "was the only one (of the Apostles) who seemed to have been lost in the shuffle. And all because of his name, poor fellow. He was always confused with Judas .... it was an impossible fix that St Jude was in, and that's why he's often called the 'Patron Saint of the Impossible'. He has an especially understanding ear for people like yourself with a problem that seems to have no solution."

But it is not long before Father Crumlesh gets a message from Tom Madigan that Ireland's murdered body has been found in Ned Cullen's office. As he tells Ned, when he asks him to help him clear his name, "Whatever the outcome, lad, count on me. And on the good Lord." Crumlesh "had seen his parish and his people sink into poverty, desolation, and despair." But "armed only with an unshakeable faith in his God and his fellow men" he was always ready to help the innocent, and fight "the Devil with every ounce of his physical strength, with the wisdom of his years, and with his unfailing knowledge of his people." But was Ned truly innocent?

It is the way that Ned's secretary always comes in late in her responses to prayers in church that finally gives him clue as to what had really been going on. It makes another interesting story.

Father Crumlish and the Golden Gloves Watch (April 1969) sees Father Crumlish officiating at the Wake of Slugger Slattery, a local boxer who had never really made it, although early in his career he had won the welterweight championship in the Golden Gloves competition which had been sponsored by a local paper. After he had turned professional, he had fared badly but "still he kept punching until his body was a mass of bruises, his once handsome face pounded to a misshapen pulp. Through it all he never lost his conviction that he was 'champ material'. Even in later years, when his closest contact with the ring was watching youngsters work out at the gym, Slattery never failed to buttonhole even complete strangers, and relate in elaborate detail his Golden Gloves triumph. And then he would remove his prized watch and proudly display the inscription on the back with his name and the date of his victory." The author's sense of compassion shines through.

At the Wake, old Father Crumlish, who does not miss much and to whom "virtually every face in the crowded room was familiar", notices that the cherished prize, the gold watch, is missing from the corpse's wrist. Then, later on, when his own watch goes missing, an "irritating thought pervaded his mind as he climbed into bed: was he getting old?" But his missing watch gives him an idea, and, having spent years "pitted against the criminal elements which thrive on the weak is-willed and the poverty-stricken", he is now able to help Tom Madigan of the local police to identify the thief.

It is not one of the more interesting stories (unless you like boxing), but, even so, the author manages to come up with an amusing ending.

Father Crumlish Remembers His Poe (July 1969) starts with Crumlesh being called out to a dying robber who confesses to a murder that Crumlesh becomes sure that he did not commit, as the man had probably been in church at the time. So Crumlesh ventures out into the roughest part of his desperately deprived parish and into what he thinks of as "Satan's Alley" which harbored, he knew, "nearly every kind of avarice and evil known to mankind". But even here people "feared God - and Father Crumlesh".

Undeterred by his surroundings, Crumlish sets about questioning the murdered woman's husband and the bartender at the joint which she had owned. And, after remembering a story of Poe's, he is able to identify the murder weapon - and so find out which of the three suspects had been lying. As he explained to Big Tom Madigan, "If you want to hide something, the best place for it is right out in plain sight, where people see it all the time - where they expect to see it." Once again, it is his powers of detection that solve the crime.

Father Crumlish and the Long Hot Summer (September 1969) finds Father Crumlish's neighbourhood sweltering under extreme heat which brings out tensions between the very mixed racial groups. One evening, Father Crumlish is about to set off "on patrol" in his nightly effort to keep the peace, when one of his tough young choristers, the "slight-statured, undernourished fourteen-year-old", Angel Fores, begs for his help. A local butcher, and good friend of Father Crumlish's, has been stabbed with Angel's knife. He swears to Father Crumlish that he is innocent, so Crumlish, who really knows his people (by which he means everyone who lives wihin his parish), sets about questioning other likely suspects. In the end, it is his own enthusiasm for baseball that leads him to the truth.

The dirt, grime and poverty of the neighbourhood are vividly described,as are the characters of the participants from Nicholas LoVarco, the friendly butcher, to Emma Catt, Crumlish's formidable housekeeper who has looked after him for 22 years and was "content to let the pastor run St Brigid's parish as long she could rule with an iron hand over the rectory's household."

And Crumlish himself, despite his "constantly plaguing arthritis", which is slightly eased in hot weather, is still quite prepared to stand up to a mob: "I don't have to tell you who I am. You all know me - and I know you- and tonight I'm ashamed to admit it. But it's you, every last one of you, who should be ashamed to be out here rabble- rousing." And he is able in to pick out trouble-makers, one by one, and remind them what they have previously promised him and where their duty lies. He remains a solidly convincing character, as do the young hooligans whose behavior he tries so hard to check. Unfortunately, this was the last story in the series.


There is almost nothing about the author on the web. I would welcome more information about her (including her dates). If you can help, please get in touch with me via my guest book.

The magazines may be difficult to track down (it is a pity there was never an anthology devoted just to Father Crumlish stories) but, if you are in the UK, I may be able to help. Please enquire via my guest book.


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Murder Most Divine cover
A few of the stories can be found in anthologies. In the Confessional appears in this one.
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
Most of the stories can only be found in back numbers of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, such as this one for June 1964. The author of the Father Crumlish stories was seldom thought important enough to be featured on the front cover!
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine cover
This is the British version of the April 1969 edition. No mention of Alice Scanlan Reach here either!
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