(creator: Frank McConnell)
|Bridget O'Toole had been a nun, known as Sister Mary Juanita, for 30 years, when, plain and middle-aged (she was "way past fifty, with a face like a cantaloupe"), she inherited the O'Toole Investigative Agency in Chicago, after her father had had a stroke. She immediately left her convent (we are not told how she did this) and abandoned her life of teaching (including time in the Peace Corps) to become the tough worldly-wise head of the agency. As Harry Garnish, one of her two employees put it, "She was dumpy, she didn't understand a lot of things, and she could be a giant pain in the ass. But she was tough, tough in ways, maybe, that I didn't even understand. But I could respect it." It was he who described her as Sister Mary Godzilla. She had "come out of the convent - The Sisters of the Holy Retribution, or something like that - to help 'put things in order'." And she had been doing it for two years by the start of the first story - and looks likely to stay.
Bridget is surprisingly knowledgeable, even knowing how hard it is to cut up bodies: "You see, I worked for a while as a surgical nurse - oh, it was years ago, in an Appalachian mission." Harry Garnish (the storyteller in all the books) stared at her. "How often do you meet retired Mother Superiors who are experts on dismemberment?" She can be quite a formidable character too, as when she tells off a blackmailer: "We've put up with quite enough of your histrionics, your mewling, and your redeness. ... you horrible child' Not for nothing had she been a seventh grade teacher.
Francis DeMay McConnell, known as Frank McConnell, (1942-1999) lived at Santa Barbara, California and was a professor of English at the University of California. He had been awarded his undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame and earned his doctorate at Yale. He had then taught at Cormell University and at Northwestern University. He was twice married, and had two children and a stepson.
He published many books on film and literary criticism, as well as the four detective novels described below, and numerous magazine articles. For years he was media correspondent for the lay Catholic journal, Commonweal. He served several times on the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury. He was known for his robustious wit, and was a highly ribald, entertaining and popular teacher.
Murder Among Friends (1983)
When Harry's friend, Fred Healey, is bizarrely murdered, Bridget insists that the agency should investigate his death. Harry's job is complicated by the fact that he and Fred's wife Marianne have been having an affair, and by the puzzling involvement of the powerful ecology enthusiast and millionaire Harmon Wright, and his seductive wife Yolanda. Harry finds himself shot at, repeatedly kidnapped and otherwise badly handled in this fast-moving funny tale of murder and other crimes set in gritty Chicago.
Harry would be happy to carry on (and that's the right expression) on his own, questioning the lovely Lucinda, but Bridget O'Toole suddenly appears behind him: "In all her pudgy glory, in a flowing polyester construction that looked like a banner for the Orange Bowl pageant or like sunset over the steel works - there she stood." And she takes over questioning the suspect. "Do you mind, dear, if I ask you just a few more questions? Just so that I can get things clear in my own head, you see."
One of Harry's problems is the policeman, Inspector Carp, who does not like him one little bit. But Bridget knew him as Clemence Carp and "my best and sweetest student in the eighth grade at St Athanasius" and knows he will trust her implicitly. It is she, and not Harry, who realises that blackmail may be at the heart of the mystery. It is all written with verve and humor, which make it both entertaining and easy to read.
Much to Harry's distress, Bridget herself comes to sort out the mystery. And it is not by intuition, she did it. "All I did was form a few conclusions from a set of circumstances that could not be denied or altered. I'm afraid I'm not very good at the detective business," she concluded with a little girl's giggle and a fat woman's heaving of the shoulders." But Harry knows better.
Bridget is always entertaining, whether she is citing a story about St Thomas Aquinas and a prostitute in defence of her meddling, or to correct Harry (who fancies himself as a jazz buff) on the make-up of Tadd Dameron's early forties quintet ("She looked at me as though I'd forgotten my homework assignment. "Not Wardell Gray on tenor sax, Harry dear. I believe it was Allen Eager").
Harry may worry that "slim times had hit O'Toole Investigations". But every time he tried to talk to Bridget about it, what did he get? "Meditations on the economy, on the morality of private detective work, reflections that go on for months it feels like, for Christ's sake, on the idea of crime. That's what I got. But no more Christmas bonuses." But, as he admits, "She's really not that bad a boss, just a little flaky. She even brings in doughnuts for the whole O'Toole staff (all three or four of them) on Fridays. (I hate doughnuts.) She's got to leave sometime, and then it becomes the Harold Garnish Detective Agency: a leaky boat with no rudder, okay, but mine all the same, and a hell of a lot more than I've got now." At least that gives him something to look forward to - not that she shows any intention of leaving.
Harry remembers Bridget's father's advice to him about the detective business: "Harry, all this movie crap about reasoning and clues and billy-be-damned what else isn't just blarney: it's three-day-old, flyblown blarney. Rancid blarney. Blarney fit only for the consumption of the beasts of the field. Learn to lie, boyo .... Lying is our vocation and our trade. The world is full of liars, you know. And for a modest emolument you and I agree to separate some of the liars from some of the others. That's all. Tisn't a noble callin' .... but it's our callin'." But Harry does not find it an easy life: "In the last twenty-four hours I'd been threatened with having my legs broken, had my head danced on, been damn near seduced by a twenty-year-old, and now I was being mistaken for a shrink."
Other interesting characters include Elliott Andrews, a jazz saxophonist now running a gumbo and jambala cafe in the woods, and Crazy Sam Two Feathers, a huge "full half-blood Dakota" whose pigtails and bellowing voice both disappear when he reverts to his customary role a a video salesman. There's also Knobby, an unprepossessing character who had been one of the villains in the previous book, whom Bridget had now employed as another investigator - much to Harry's dismay. "He's short. he's got red hair, he struts instead of walks. It's impossible to look at him and not think about Woody Woodpecker." He and Harry don't shake hands but just grimace at each other.
The story gets off to a very good start and is fast-moving and entertaining throughout. Even plants join in the fun. Harry winks at Phil, "a philodendron of many years who, I think, has gone plant-senile. He just droops over Bridget's sofa and leaks on the carpet when you water him. Doesn't give a healthy goddamn about being a self-respecting philodendron any more, you know? Just wants to be left the hell alone. Phil I like."
Hard-drinking, chain-smoking Harry, who has been described as the author's preferred persona, does all the legwork. Bridget solves the crimes. They make quite a couple. Recommended.
The Frog King (1990)
Hard-drinking as ever, Harry soon finds himself in the drunk tank at the local police station, where he meets motor-cyclist Cado. "I knew he was the Brother of Satan because it said so on his chest, in a big purple tattoo that could take up the top half of the front page of the Chicago Tribune, if the Tribune's front page also had a lot of thick black hair." But thug though Cado looks, he can quote Oscar Wilde: "Ol' Oscar said that the real pleasure of a cigarette is that it always leaves you perfectly unsatisfied. Goddam, ain't that a kick?"
While he and Harry search for Carla, and investgate apparent porn star connections, Bridget discovers the relevance of the old fairy tale, The Frog King. It is she who shows Harry a porn magazine called that featured Carla and porn star Bobby Reilly. "It was called CREAM SCREEN, and on the cover was a blonde with a mean expression .... and across her belly it said XXXX! YOUR FAVORITE HUNG STUDS AND HORNY BI-BABES!!" "Damn, Bridget," i said. "You didn'y buy this, did you?"
The story seems slower-moving and less exciting than the previous ones, and the sleazy background is not all that interesting, but "Atilla the Nun", as Harry calls Bridget is still a force to be reckoned with.
Liar's Poker (1993)
This is a less amusing book than the previous ones. Described as "A Harry Garnish Mystery" on the cover, it concentrates even more on him. He seems an increasingly drunken and often unattractive character, getting, on one occasion, "three weeks of grousing ... into the next forty-five minutes". There's a new grimness behind some of the humor too, as when he says, "I'm not a complicated man. No big philosophy of life. not even much good advice. But, you know, if the world is an awful place that you know, sooner or later, it's going to break your heart." Then he wonders: "Ever think that life maybe is a bad movie?" He goes along with Chaos Theory: "As far as I could tell, the geniuses who put this thing together had decided that - surprise, surprise - the real world was actually as screwed up as most of us had already thought it was." He's honest about himself, but hardly courageous: "The last time I was mugged ... when the two guys (yeah, only two) knocked me down. I knew just the right Tae Kwon Do move: I held out my wallet with my left hand and told them to have a nice day. They (honest) laughed and left. (With my wallet, sure.)"
There are good moments, as when Harry describes his employer Bridget : "Where she used to dress in big, K mart tie-die tents - the thrill, I guess, of being out of the habit (she had previously been a nun) - that made her look like Mama Cass on the slum, she dresses these days in dark skirts and jackets that make her look like Mama Cass impersonating Marlon Brando as the Godfather. You get the concept: She's large." And there are some good cracks too at the pretentiousness of some university professors (of whom the author of course was one), and at the badly written description of a creative writing course. What other kind of writing is there, Harry wonders.
But even Brigid seems less sure of herself. As one of the characters says, "Good as she is, I think she's in the same bad place as I am in. She really doesn't know where home is, what world she belongs in." And before the end, even she gets frightened that her enemies will be able to close her agency down. To save it, Harry has to do a deal with a powerful underground figure called the Priest, and this means that he'll always owe him favors. Not a happy omen for the future. Perhaps it is just as well that this was the last book.
|The covers from first (above) to last (below) are more decorative than informative.|