Father Robert Koesler (pronounced Kess-ler), a Roman Catholic priest who helps the police solve mysteries that have a Catholic connection, appears in 24 novels by William X Kienzle (1928-2001), written after Kienzle himself had spent 20 years as a priest (the very first priest to write detective stories?). During over 14 of these, he also edited the Michigan Catholic newspaper. He left the priesthood he loved in 1974, largely because of disagreeing with its refusal to remarry divorcees: "The Church has 2,414 Canon Laws, and I never met one I liked .... I found the God epitomised in these laws to be harsh, legalistic and only reluctantly forgiving ... The Code's God is the antithesis of the God whom Jesus presented to us as our Father".
He subsequently married copy-editor Javan, to whom he'd announced his love a year before he left the priesthood (but he insisted this wasn't the reason he left). He then found a job as editor of MPLS magazine in Minneapolis, most of which he and his wife had to write themselves, often using the pen-names Mark Boyle and Fiona Lowther. Mark Boyle had been the name of his maternal grandfather, who looked rather like Cardinal Deardon of Detroit and became the name used for the Cardinal in the best-selling Father Koesler books which were to follow.
After two-and-a-half years he moved to Kalamazoo to become Assistant Director of the Center for Contemplative Studies, run by the Trappists, which was subsequently moved, lock, stock and barrel, to the University of Dallas in Texas, with Kienzle as Director. Both he and his wife liked the university and the Texans, but they didn't like Texas. Nine months later, he and Javan were on their way back to Detroit. By then, his first Father Koesler novel had been published, and so, needing an income, he became a full-time author.
"I was aware," he explained, "of the storied advice to would-be authors: Go with what you know. What I knew best was Catholicism and the priests and nuns who populated that faith. How to put that experience into a murder mystery? A bunch of priests and nuns going around killing people? Hardly likely. What about someone killing priests and nuns? That was it. I was off and running ... So I wrote what became The Rosary Murders."
The Rosary Murders (1979)
The Rosary Murders, was set, like his later stories, in Detroit where he grew up and worked, and tells how Father Koesler's specialist Roman Catholic knowledge helps the police track down the person behind a whole series of apparently senseless murders of priests and nuns, the killer leaving rosary beads on the fingers of each victim. All this is most convincingly set against the background of the dramatic changes made by the Second Vatican Council, and, as always with Kienzle, the interplay of the clergy with each other is described with real insight and understanding, as when Father Koesler and a fellow priest "had agreed that TV would not be an adequate distraction from the tension they both felt. So they had decided to solve all the problems of the Church. That pastime was even more popular among priests than the exchange of clerical gossip". He is nothing if not down-to-earth: "He'd been hearing confessions for a couple of decades and could count on one hand the number of ties he'd heard anything surprising, let alone juicy". He's realistic about priests too: "By no means did all priests tell vulgar jokes. But those who did seemed to have an unlimited supply". But it's the unfolding story that holds the interest throughout. It all works up to a really exciting climax when Koesler waits for the murderer to appear. "It was Koesler who commented that "somebody ought to write a book about this". We're lucky Kienzle did! Recommended.
The book was made into a film featuring Donald Sutherland in 1987. Kienzle said, "I feel I stand in a long line of authors who are not enchanted by film adaptations of their works. I was naiive. Since the movie was filmed entirely in Detroit and a friend was the producer, I thought I might be welcomed on the set..." but this was not what happened. "We both wanted to forget it," said Kienzle's wife. "No way was the author to get his hands or his eyes on the script". Kienzle himself heard about the completed film, and its added love interest, from his friends, but chose not to see it. As he explained in a letter, "Since I am still using many of the characters, I did not want to risk clouding my image of them with someone else's notions".
Death Wears a Red Hat (1980)
Death Wears a Red Hat, his second book, is full of invention and humor, although involving the grisly discovery of severed heads usually mounted on church statues, but with the first of them neatly tucked into the crown of the cardinal's hat that hangs from the ceiling of the Roman Catholic cathedral. It turns out that they belonged to particularly vicious criminals, and this raises questions of retribution and judgement, especially as the death of each is preceded by a vision of utter horror, involving the dying man's innocent victims. I won't give away the conclusion ("The series of killings was a statement," Koesler was convinced. "A statement on sin. Sin as the using and misusing of people"), but try summarising the plot, and it becomes apparent what a load of nonsense it is!
Yet the background is real and convincing, and it's all highly entertaining to read, what with the priest who gets preferential treatment by pretending to be the Anonymous Gourmet who writes restaurant reviews for the local press, and another who somehow "was always able to introduce the subject of S-E-X into his sermons. It was occasionally entertaining to find how he would work it in".
There are the usual throwaway comments like: "In the past quarter-century, the Catholic rectory ... had evolved from being the hub of neighbourhood activity to being, as some wags insisted, a home for unmarried fathers". There's even a crack at Father Andrew Greeley, author of competing (and, to my mind, inferior) detective stories about Roman Catholic clergy who also wrote what Koesler describes as a "forgettable treatise on Sexual Intimacy", and a brief appearance of a Father McInerny.
Mind Over Murder (1981)
Mind Over Murder (1981) gets us into the complexities and apparent absurdities of marriage annulments and the like in church canon law. It all gets rather confusing, but it was a subject about which the author felt really deeply, being the main reason he left the priesthood. The person who seems to enjoy blocking or delaying remarriage plans is lascivious Monsignor Tommy Thompson, director of the Tribunal, the archdiocesan matrimonial court, who always used to boast, "Nothing ever happens to me" - until the day he disappeared.
The Monsignor leaves behind a diary with the names of six of the faithful whose hopes he had dashed and who (it is suggested) might have motives for murdering him. Then it is explained how one of these victims came to kidnap him. So far so good, but then there is an account of how another of them came to murder him. Then another ... then another .... until all six of them (plus another for good measure) seem to have done away with him (including a fellow-priest who administered poison, then did a self-service disposal of him at the crematorium! We soon realise that these stories couldn't all be true, but it gets rather tedious having to read so many of them.
Father Koesler is once again asked to join the police for interviews of the suspects he knows: "Secretly, he was pleased that he'd been called upon as a consultant. But this feeling was more than displaced by the sense of being an unwanted and amateur trespasser into another's field of experience". But it is he, of course, who eventually has the understanding to solve the mystery.
There is the usual affectionate but critical observation of the author's fellow clerics, such as the young deacon who told Koesler that in his homily "I told them that as a result of my kerygmatic catachesis, they must respond as a people of God, experience an existential matanoia and become a transcendent faith community". Javan Kienzle says in her Guestbook entry that "almost all the main characters were indeed based on real people, and the nasty monsignor was a particularly venial cleric whom diocesan readers recognized immediately. (He's dead now.)" But I found it too prolonged and confusing a tale, even though it does eventually build up to a gripping conclusion.
Assault with Intent (1982)
Assault with Intent is a lively, entertaining story about murderous plans to assassinate some of the priests (including Father Koesler), who are teaching in Detroit's seminaries. There are amusing yet affectionate portrayals of them, including the one who solemnly warns his students: "Yes, boys, out there it is a jungle. A cesspool filled with temptation. Scarlet women eager to snatch from you your sacred, pure, priestly vocation. Avoid them, boys, avoid them. Take it for granted you would like women if you tried them. As far as you aspiring clergymen are concerned, the motto is 'Look but don't touch.' "
The would-be assassins are incredibly accident prone (and incredibly is the word) as well as being members of the Tridentine Society that exists, its chairman says: "to restore the Catholic Church to its divinely established purpose which it maintained before this Vatican Two madness ran rampant". When a second-rate TV company moves in to make a TV reconstruction of what is happening, the total ineptitude of the plotters (who have miraculously managed to get themselves hired as extra production assistants) is given free play: they manage to crush a plug so that the lights won't work, kick film containers into a goldfish pool so that the camera jams, break the chair on which an interviewee is to sit so that it gives way under him, and cause the studio set to collapse around the actors right in the middle of a torrid sex scene. Then there's a real murder - but it's the character drawing of the priests that stays in the memory. Recommended.
Shadow of Death (1983)
Shadow of Death has the most unlikely plot so far (and that's saying something!). It involves the murder or attempted murder of cardinals, starting with the intriguingly named Cardinal Claret in his own Toronto church, then moving on to further attacks in the Sistine Chapel, Westminster Abbey, and the Chamber of Horrors in Madam Tussaud's (where the victim finds that many of the exhibits feature his own head - a considerable feat on the part of his attackers, to put it mildly). It's all part of truly bizarre Rastifarian/Mafia plans to destroy not only the papacy but also Father Koesler and his friends, deacon Ramon Toussaint and Inspector Koznichi of the Homicide Division, while these are accompanying the humanitarian Detroit Archbishop Mark Boyle to Rome, where he is to be made cardinal, then on to London and Ireland.
There are long passages about priests retiring and causing vacancies that can't be filled ("Perhaps God's solution is that others be called to the ministry. Women. Laicized priests. Married men."), and even digressions about the Bow Street Runners and the history of policing in the UK, which are far from essential for the story, but which obviously interested the author - and interest me too. But the visits to Rome and London sound a bit too much like a travelogue, and the author seems right out of his depth when he makes a Detective Chief Superintendent at Scotland Yard say things like: " 'Ere we know 'oo we're looking for, so to speak. And we even know where the bally blighters are gonna be standin' so we can 'ave a go at 'em". But it's a story that I enjoyed reading, because, however absurd the plot, most of the characters, and particularly the clergy, really come to life.
Kill and Tell (1984)
Kill and Tell is a much more convincing story about an ambitious auto executive, Frank Hoffman, and the enemies he makes on his ambitious way up The Company. The characters and business background are very well drawn, as when Hoffman, confessing all to Father Koesler, and convinced that he is soon to die, tries to put right all the wrongs he has done. Then, as soon as he no longer thinks his life is in danger, he goes back to his previous ways. The specific Roman Catholic issues that so preoccupied Kienzle are still there (such as a reference to "the decision made by Pope Paul VI to override the majority opinion of his own birth control commission ... as far as many of the younger clergy and the majority of younger Catholic laity were concerned, the Pope had clearly been wrong"), but they add to the interest without slowing down the action. Indeed it is what occurs to Father Koesler during a conversation on the subject of meditation, that provides the clue that enables him to identify the murderer. Then Koesler hopes that he can go back to "just leading the quiet, unassuming life of a simple parish priest". Some hope! Recommended.
Sudden Death (1985)
Sudden Death is all about the murder of a very unpleasant American football player: "We need a play-action pass. Fake a run up the middle, flare out, and hit the S receiver along the sidelines". If, as I do, you find this totally incomprehensible, you won't like this book. Kienzle was an enthusiast, and obviously enjoyed telling the story of the different suspects (mostly footballers, all of whom had good reason for disliking the murdered player). Most of them were members of the "God Squad", a pro footballers' Bible Group which Father Koesler had also been invited to join. He is asked to go along with the police to help check out the accuracy of what the other members say (well, that's the excuse that the author uses). There are flashbacks to the personal stories of each, sometimes going all the way back to their parents' experiences, and these got too prolonged. Throughout, there seems to be more talk than action, and altogether I found this the least interesting book in the series.
Even so, there was room for some thoughtful bits: "Each of us who live will die. Then what? Nothing? Anything? Reincarnation? As a lower form of life? As another human? Or, as the Bible clearly teaches, judgment? Then, heaven? Hell? Purgatory? No living person, pondered Koesler, can prove the answer to any of those questions. It's a matter of choosing something in which to believe... The Christian is offered the Resurrection in which to believe... a most consoling faith .... What sort of belief would a person such as Hank Hunsinger (the murdered player) have about a life after death? From the little Koesler had been able to learn, he doubted that Hunsinger had given much if any thought to the question .... No matter. Now he knows all the answers."
Deathbed sees Father Koesler acting as temporary chaplain in a Catholic hospital where several of the staff seem to be plotting to murder the indomitable old nun in charge. The characters, including Bruce, the accident prone volunteer ("There had been the food tray collision; the dropped specimen tube; the patient bent almost into pretzel shape when Bruce tried to adjust her electronically powered bed; the cracked stained-glass window of the chapel where he had tripped over a prie -dieu ... the chart Bruce had accidentally set on fire: the patient who would never find her dentures that Bruce had accidentally flushed down the toilet ...") and his (believe it or not) equally accident prone girl friend, a hospital aide, are more ludicrous than convincing (they end up making very public love in the hospital's TV studio, having accidentally switched on the TV camera as well as the lights!), and many of the other characters aren't much more credible - but the humor is still enjoyable. Really inept characters were also featured in Assault with Intent, so I'm left wondering if Kienzle had someone particular in mind.
Deadline For a Critic (1987)
Deadline For a Critic explores the past of the late and much-hated homosexual fine arts critic, Ridley Groendal (your chance of getting killed in a Kienzle book is much increased if you're really nasty). Father Koesler had known him in his high school and seminary days, and so the story also reveals quite a lot about Koesler (as when he helped to smuggle a girl into a friend's room in the seminary) and this helps to hold the interest throughout. The story is told in a series of flashbacks when Koesler's attention wanders during the Mass at Groendal's funeral. Although all too well aware of how vicious Groendal had been, Koesler had felt it was his duty to preside over the service, as he "liked to believe that when we die we will be judged by Love".
Groendal's heart attack seemed to have been aggravated by the shock of receiving, by the same post, threatening or abusive letters from all four of the people who seemed to dislike him most :"We've either got the amazing coincidence of all four letters just happening to get here at about the same time. Or, it was no coincidence; it was just a conspiracy." Groendal's "disgust, at times an outright loathing, for most writers, artists and performers" that led to "acid flowing from his pen" dates from Koesler's seminary days when his personal circumstances led Groendal to have had "a radical change in his personality. Groendal was by no means the first nor the last to twist the Christian ethic to suit his own purpose. But he did it. What had begun as an emphasis on Christian assertiveness, quickly translated into a profound selfishness". He ended up pursuing those he thought had harmed him with such malice that all four said they'd happily kill him.
This makes an arresting story of what can happen when religion goes wrong, and there are lots of human touches as when Koesler describes the camaraderie of the priesthood: "Almost every priest knew almost all the others. As they gathered, there were smiles of recognition, nods, nudges, a few words, but mostly the nonverbal communication that marks a uniquely shared life and experience". This surely must have been something that Kienzle himself was very conscious of missing. Indeed many of Kienzle's own experiences occur in the book: his piano playing, the writing of crime novels with a Catholic background, and the lack of security experienced when leaving the priesthood. There's also what he felt about some of his book reviewers: "You knock yourself cold researching - and you're accurate. Then some reviewer, right off the top of his or her head, says you're wrong ... If I had my way, reviewers would have to be licensed ... once they make X number of factual errors in reviews, they lose their license." What dare I say now except to recommend this book? But I would have, anyway.
Marked for Murder (1988)
Marked for Murder is an unusually gritty and realistic account of the murder and mutilation of a series of prostitutes by someone dressed as a Roman Catholic priest, and it works up to a suspenseful and intriguing climax. Among those who help Father Koesler solve the mystery is the enigmatic pathologist, Dr Moellman, who was closely based on the Wayne Court Medical Examiner of the time. Kienzle and his wife thoroughly researched these books, so I looked to see if the help of any prostitutes had also been acknowledged - but the answer was no. Perhaps he got his information from the Sisters working for the Samaritan Health Care Centre, and Women Arise, whose assistance is mentioned. Anyway, it's a thoroughly convincing setting. Recommended.
Eminence has a strong and interesting plot involving a small group of religious brothers with a strangely sinister leader who set up a quasi-monastery in an old bank building in downtown Detroit and attract large crowds because of the healing miracles that seem to occur there. Police Lieutenant "Zoo" Tully's own wife is one of those who seek a cure, and Father Koesler is sent by the Archbishop to report on what's going on. Also involved is leading journalist Pat Lennon. These are among a number of interesting and well-drawn characters. Kienzle also manages to make all his backgrounds (whether church, morgue, police station or bank) really convincing, but it is the underlying theological questions (such as the nature of miracles) that stay in the memory. Recommended.
Masquerade is another book I enjoyed, partly because it's set at a seminar for would-be mystery writers, where the guest lecturers are a rabbi, nun, monk and Episcopalian priest, who have all written successful crime novels, with the protaganists in each case being extensions of themselves (just like Kienzle and Koesler). It is presided over by the famous televangelist and notorious publisher of sensational religious crime novels, Klaus Krieg ("Priests loathed televangelists - and at the very top of their aversion list was the 'Reverend' Klaus Krieg").
Krieg must be the least convincing character to appear in any Kienzle novel (why would a famous and wealthy televangelist bother to go to the extraordinary lengths he does, just to add more writers to the team of authors that he publishes?). But the other characters are full of interest. Father Koesler is there as a "resource person" - and, when the time comes, he identifies the murderer. Ideally I'd have liked to have heard more about what the writers told their students, because this is very much Kienzle's own area of expertise. You are left wondering whether he himself, like the characters in this story, was ever pressurised to build up the sex and violence in his stories to make them more popular. The story is full of surprises, as well as the usual rather unnecessary, but interesting, clerical stories - and issues like the recognition of Episcopalian (Anglican) priests also crop up. Recommended.
Chameleon, despite its less than arresting title, begins promisingly enough with a prostitute, dressed like a nun, being murdered after midnight on the streets of Detroit. Other murders of church dignitaries follow, but they are rather too spaced out with what seem unnecessarily long descriptions of poker, references to coffee-making (not one of Father Koesler's talents) and rather too many passages about the waste caused by the Church's refusal to let priests marry or, if married, resume their priestly functions: "The median age of priests is so high now and there are so few remaining active that 'burnout' vies with retirement and death in thinning the ranks. Seminaries are virtually empty, especially when you contrast the few enrolled with the need for many times that number." But, as Father Koesler (speaking, I am sure, for his author as well as himself) says about staying in the Church: "I love the Church and I love the priesthood. Even though I can see the warts and blemishes, I still love it. I think if there weren't a Catholic Church, somebody would have to invent it. I guess I love it more for what it has sometimes been and what it someday can be".
Body Count (1992)
Body Count has a highly ingenious plot, beginning with a not-very-bright thug confessing that he's murdered a local priest and dumped the body in the grave of the legendary Monsignor Clem Kern (a real person known in Detroit for his championing of the poor). Father Koesler, bound by the seal of the confessional, is unable to do anything about it, even when he discovers that a local priest really has disappeared. He can't even tell the crook to pray in penance, because it is doubtful if he knows any prayers: "I think I knew the Our Father once," says the thug. "But I ain't sure. Tell you what: How about I go home? I got a record off Sinatra singing the Our Father. How about if I listen to the record?"
Accompanying Father Koesler on this comic and fast-moving adventure is young Father Dunn who is staying with him, while taking some university psychology courses. But his real ambition is to be a cop like Father Koesler "whom he perceived as having made police officer before him". What Koesler had been hoping for was some practical help in running the parish, but he soon found he'd have to continue to offer the Sunday noon Mass "as it was in Latin and Latin was Greek to Father Dunn". But then there is talk of making the late Clem King a saint and his body has to be dug up (partly so as to satisfy the church authorities that it really is his body, and partly because, who knows that it might not have been miraculously preserved?). Koesler realises that the dead priest's body will also be found there, and tension builds as the exhumation is carried out.
Surprises continue to unfold right up to the end, when Koesler warns Dunn that "you're welcome to stay, but you're mistaken if you think that I get involved in these investigations as some sort of avocation...I'd be willing to bet that I'll never be involved in another police investigation". Dunn smiles outright - and very wisely makes the bet. Recommended.
Dead Wrong (1993)
I much enjoyed.Dead Wrong. It's all about Father Koesler's cousins and their involvement in a thirty-year-old murder (it had been Koznichi's very first case), and is full of action and even excitement. There are strong dramatic characters, including the old and ill but still powerful Charlie Nash, founder of the wealthy Nash Enterprises, who "was very much a Catholic, although only by his definition, not the Church's". Then there's his son, the equally unscrupulous Ted Nash, who now runs the business, and is regarded as one of the city's most distinguished Catholics (who even has his own priest, together with a TV studio from where compulsory daily Masses are broadcast to his staff) and happily combines this with a long-term relationship with his mistress (believe it or not, another of Koesler's relations). According to Jan Kienzle, "Dead Wrong was based on an actual occurrence in Bill's mother's family". Recommended.
Bishop as Pawn (1994)
Bishop as Pawn also gets off to a dramatic start: "Bishop Ramon Diego was dead. And the priests were having a party." As so often in the Kienzle books, divorce and annulment also come into the story: "Divorce, depending on whether and how it was contested, could be brutal. To Koesler, this was the moment when an understanding, solicitous, forgiving and welcoming Church was most needed. He was embarrassed to admit that his Church, the Catholic Church, was perhaps the least helpful of any major faith in this respect." After another murder, he finds that by "using the formula he had so often recommended to others: Pray as if everything depended on God, but act as if everything depended on you", he can clear an innocent colleague. There's some fun at the expense of a movie company that wants to recreate what happens, calling it Death Wears a Red Hat (the title of Kienzle's second book) but intends to ginger it up by introducing a scandalous love interest that wasn't there and "think they can get the services of Donald Sutherland" (yet another reference to Kienzle's own experience). Both the plot and the characters hold the interest throughout.
Call No Man Father (1995)
Call No Man Father tells how the Pope's life may be threatened on a forthcoming visit to Detroit. Amongst his possible murderers are some Catholics who fear that he may declare the Church's widely ignored ban on artificial methods of birth control to be infallible. Then there's a gang of rich delinquents who think that killing the Pope may make them "among the most famous bad guys of all time ... Murder! It's the ultimate high. There can't be anything better than this". And journalist Pat Lennon even suspects that her ex-boyfriend Joe Cox may be planning to murder the Pope to get a good story for his paper. Not the world's most convincing motives for murder, I would have thought. But three murders do occur.
All the background information about the projected visit and the discussion about infallibility (Cardinal Newman is quoted as saying: "I will drink to infallibility.But first, I will drink to conscience") is really interesting. And there are the usual amusing anecdotes, told when priests get together, such as the one about the Bishop who asked a boy whom he was preparing for confirmation, "What does a Bishop do?'. And the kid said, "Moves diagonally".
Kienzle, like Koesler, is obviously really concerned that "a hierarchy of celibate men will continue to control the rest of the world's access to birth control". Hence his concern that that it may be declared an infallible pronouncement. These are the issues that bring the book alive.
Requiem for Moses (1996)
Requiem for Moses starts with a very unusual situation, when Father Koesler is talked into allowing a funeral wake for a much disliked Jewish doctor to take place in his church. This leads to what some believe to be a miracle. As Pat Lennon, the reporter, puts it, "This is a major news story. This could be the greatest thing since Lazarus". Father Koesler gets together with Lieutenant Tully and his usual police team: "They all knew each other. Fate - it could be nothing less - had linked them all in several homicide investigations in the past". All sorts of complications (including murder) follow, before Koesler can eventually puzzle out what's really happening. This all makes a good, if sometimes shocking and violent, story.
The Man Who Loved God (1997)
In The Man Who Loved God, Father Koesler goes off on vacation, leaving his parish in the charge of visiting Father Zachary Tully, who has come to Detroit to meet the half-brother he never knew he had, the amazed Lieutenant Zoo Tully. A new branch of a local bank is opened in a difficult district, and the new manager is murdered. Barbara, his widow, turns out to be pregnant with the child of either the bank's president or one of the three executive vice presidents. Then she finds out she is a lesbian! And the plot doesn't get any more likely as it progresses. It's written with a harsh realism, beginning with a horrifying description of an abortion (and more) that had been carried out on a helpless Barbara when she was only 12, and had not understood either that she was pregnant or what her father had been doing to her. I found it difficult to accept that she could have been quite so ignorant.
Other parts of the plot, as when Father Tully is allowed to accompany the police to a shoot-out, seem equally unlikely. Then Barbara falls in love with her therapist. It's the therapist who tells her about the "glass ceiling" that prevents women being promoted to the really top jobs: "Everybody on the top side of the ceiling pretends it isn't there ... but try climbing up there with the big boys, and you'll rap your head on that invisible barrier". It is a real pity that Father Koesler himself doesn't reappear until the end of the book, when he announces his retirement. The appeal of the other books owes much to him, and it's all a lot less interesting (or convincing) when he isn't there.
The Greatest Evil (1998)
The Greatest Evil shows Father Koesler preparing to hand over his parish to Father Zachary Tully, but there are problems over the succession with authoritarian Bishop Vincent Delvecchio, whom Father Koesler has known since seminary days. Koesler has first hand knowledge of the Bishop's own unhappy past: "an excommunicated aunt; a failed nullity decree; a suicide; sisterly enmity; terminal cancer at the worst time for the children", followed by the complete breakdown of young ordinand Vincent and his transformation into an obsessed authority figure. But Koesler cannot share the Bishop's absolute obedience to the niceties of Canon Law, especially those regarding marriage, particularly when the Bishop seems to misinterpret them. He struggles to put right at least some of the Bishop's cruel decisions. There's little crime involved, but a great deal about the church, its priests, and the sometimes unreasonable demands put upon them.
No Greater Love (1999)
In No Greater Love Father Koesler has just retired, but he is brought back to help his friend, the Bishop, calm down in-fighting between liberals and conservatives on the staff at St Joseph's seminary. There is no real crime in this story until the last few pages, but the conflicts between liberals and conservatives within the church, and the problems of students (women, of course, still can't be Roman Catholic priests), hold the interest throughout.
It is one of the students, Patty, who has a remarkable dream in which she is first ordained as a priest, before immediately becoming a bishop.Then she suddenly finds herself in the Sistine Chapel. A Cardinal announces to the world from the balcony that, 'We have a Pope. Patricia, Bishop of the Holy Roman Church, Donnelly. She has selected the name Toots the First!'" She speaks to the crowd (and to the world by satellite television) about her principal concerns: "The First of these was Ecumenism. There would be no more pussyfooting with the challenge of religious unification of the peoples of the world.. As a gesture of sincerity on her part, at her earliest opportunity she would seat herself on the Papal throne and using the unmistakeable language of infallibility she would proclaim that she was not infallible. Let the theologians wrestle with that one! Next she would abrogate Church or Canon Law. She was certain that no one, with the possible exception of hierarchical bureaucrats, would miss it. Instead Catholics would be urged and taught to observe the Law of Love, the Law of Christ .. and she would forgo the grandiose titles that contributed to the stumbling blocks against unity. Such titles as Vicar of Christ on earth. She would concede that she was successor to Peter. But everyone should know that Peter was not God, he was not Jesus, he was not lord of the other Apostles, he was not a dictator, and he most certainly was not infallible."
Finally, she suggested, that the seat of Catholicism - and hopefully of all Christianity - should be moved from the Vatican to Hawaii (specifically the sunny beaches of Maui). Except for that last suggestion, all this really does sound like the author speaking - and it is his hearftfelt concerns that make his books (and his frequent digressions like this one) so effective.
Till Death (2000)
In Till Death 70 year old Father Koesler doesn't appear until well over a third of the way through the book - and no actual crime is committed - but there are plenty of mysteries, both sacred and profane. But the clergy, including an ex-priest and an ex-nun, have such problems with their relationships with their new partners that you begin to wonder if celibacy for the clergy isn't such a bad idea after all - surely not a message that the author intended (but perhaps he'd say it it was the initial vow of celibacy that really led to all the difficulties)! As always, there are a lot of Kienzle's own experiences in the book: "taking a leave of absence in order to contemplate the place of Church law in my ministry", the official laicization process, falling in love with a copy editor, and getting a job as editor of a local Catholic paper with no real experience of journalism. Of Koesler it is said that "more or less annually ... he either blundered into or was invited into a homicide investigation" (it was one book per year that Kienzle had set himself to write). And the issues today are just as relevant as they were then: "Tom Becker wondered if he would live long enough to witness the inevitable triumph of gender equality. In the Catholic Church that would mean that for the Third Vatican Council, bishops would bring their wives. And for the Fourth, bishops would bring their husbands."
The Sacrifice (2001)
The Sacrifice tells what happens (two murders and one attempted murder) when Father George Wheatley leaves the Episcopal (Anglican) Church to become ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. The plot again really does strain credulity, as when the fact that he was married is given as a sufficient reason for some Catholics wanting to murder him. His reasons for converting too are far from convincing, especially as he actively supports the idea of women priests. All he can say is that he wants to bring life and movement back to the Roman Catholic church: "I don't know what exact goals I will have until the Lord makes His calling clear ... if the Papacy is the field the Lord wishes me to work in, my goal certainly will not be to destroy the office - if ever I even could. No, my mission will be to do what I can to bring it back to its roots" - but who would welcome a convert with ideas like these? It all seems just as unlikely as Koesler's own conviction that "the war in Europe would have been over much earlier had not the Winston Churchill wanted his pound of flesh. The British Prime Minister wanted to make Germany pay for the destruction it had wreaked on England". It really wasn't quite as simple as that.
The book also seems too full of long conversations, including such subjects as the church's attitude to gays, and to married priests, not all of which seem all that relevant to the plot. But Koesler himself, as always, shows love and tolerance: "The Pope (Leo XIII) insisted that Anglican orders were 'absolutely null and utterly void'. But most everybody who's looked into the matter recently would deny, or at least question his conclusion".
The Gathering (2002)
Kienzle's last book The Gathering was published the year after Kienzle died. In it, Father Koesler remembers the seminary he attended in the 1940s and his particular group of six friends, all of whom intended to become priests or nuns (one girl says, "We want to dedicate ourselves to service to the Lord. We can be cooperative and supportive to each other" and there is more rather unconvincing teenage dialogue as when one girl tells another: "You are developing beautifully. I'm happy for you"). And the story of a boy who is forced into becoming a priest just to please his mother doesn't altogether convince. The references to the transformations caused by Vatican II are rather familiar by now, so it is no surprise that Koesler "continued to miss the beauty and pageantry of the Tridentine Mass in which he had been reared and with which he had a lifelong familiarity. On the other hand, he accepted and became comfortable with the many humanizing aspects of the Vatican Council. He was, in a word, eclectic, choosing the best of both worlds." Just like Kienzle himself. This was the 24th Koesler novel, so perhaps by then he really was rather running out of stories.
Father Koesler was, according to the author's wife, William Kienzle's alter ego (he himself said "We are the same age, height and build. We have a similar philosophy of life"). Both were Catholic priests in the Detroit diocese, with very similar parishes, and both were past editors of a weekly Catholic paper.Other characters were often developed from local people he knew. Most of the clerical ones really carry conviction, although, as noted above, his plots often didn't. His wife, Jan, was very aware of the criticism that "the author is full of hogwash; such and such a thing couldn't possibly happen". "Critics who doubted the realism of Bill's books," she explained, "had no concept of some of the things that go on in real life ... One woman wrote to Bill complaining about his mixing priests and alcohol: 'I've never been in a rectory, but I know they don't drink that much." Bill replied simply, 'Well, I have been in a rectory - and they do drink that much' ". She also pointed out to a critic who pooh-poohed the idea that there was voodoo in Detroit that Bill "had spent months in researching and tracking down voodoo practitioners". But, well researched though his stories were, that in itself isn't always enough to make them believable. But that doesn't worry me too much, as long as they are concerned with real issues and interesting people, and are enjoyable to read.
Kienzle, when he suddenly died from a heart attack, had just begun work on what would have been his 25th Father Koesler book. Quite unlike any of the others, it was going to involve time travel back to the time of Jesus where Koesler would be an onlooker at the Crucifixion. He had, his wife explained, even decided on the all-important opening statement: "He never forgot the day He turned water into wine."
There is a list of his books, with dates, on the Fantastic Fiction site.
His wife's biography of him, Judged by Love (2004) by Javan Kienzle, gives a fascinating loving account of his training and career ("Readers of his mystery novels wondered how such a pacific man could write about murder. 'Look at the Bible,' Bill would reply, 'Lots of sex and murder' "), although I found it rather less interesting when she was writing about herself or their dogs. She much helped his writing by acting as critic and editor - spelling was never his strongest point - and his books were always dedicated to her, "my wife and collaborator". As she explained, "Bill Kienzle liked stories. He liked to listen to them and to tell them. Over the years, he made a present to me of the life he had lived before he met me. He told me stories of his family, his childhood and his seminary days. And from his accounts of his life as a priest, I grew to know his love for the priesthood and his fellow priests." Admittedly many of his best stories and jokes (as with the one about the rectory being a home for unmarried fathers) reappear in different books, but when you write 24 of them, this can surely be forgiven. She also explains the origin of the name GOPITS Inc (the copyright holder of all the later books), a name taken for tax purposes: "GOPITS", Bill explained, "was an anacronym for Great Offertory Procession in the Sky - where, he assured us, we would all be going eventually". There is a message from Javan Kienzle in my Guest Book.
The Los Angeles Times described him as "the Harry Kemelman of Catholicism ... the Detroit response to Rabbi Small". And so he is - but a lot more amusing. And, for me, he's by far the most interesting and realistic of the RC priest detectives.
Let the last word be with Bob Kienzle himself: "I need people, I confess. And I need the sense that I am at least trying to help them. I believe I can do this, in some measured degree, in the series of mystery novels that I am writing."
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