The elderly, eccentric yet really shrewd, if distinctly pudgy Sister Mary Teresa (the Superior of the three nuns that are all that is left of the Order of Martha and Mary) is featured in ten entertaining books by Monica Quill, the quirky pseudonym of of Ralph McInerny (1929 - ), teacher of philosophy at Notre Dame University since 1955, and a professor since 1969. He has published a large number of books on religious subjects (he is a recognised authority on St Thomas Aquinas), and his nearly 70 novels include 24 that feature Father Dowling (these are better known than his Monica Quill stories but are much less fun).
McInerny explains that he deliberately modelled his nun stories on Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries: old Sister Mary Teresa stays at home, just like Nero Wolfe does, leaving other people to do the chasing around. The first nun stories too were solved by Mother Teresa gathering all the suspects around and then revealing the guilty party. At first, Sister Kimberly takes the central role that Archie played in the Nero Wolfe mysteries, but "With time I stopped using a single viewpoint, that of Kimberly, and returned to multiple viewpoint which I greatly prefer".
He explains he used a pseudonym because he had the same publisher as for his Father Dowling series (his agent had originally suggested he write these after he'd been reading the Rabbi Small books), and he wanted to avoid any resistance to them bringing out a new book for each series each year: "Being a priest or nun in imagination for the course of a novel is probably good for my soul. It hasn't hurt my income either".
Not a Blessed Thing (1981)
The first of the series, Not a Blessed Thing, gets off to a lively and entertaining (if highly improbable) start. The three nuns live together in a Frank Lloyd Wright house on Chicago's Walton Street. The brother of one of them is a police inspector who conveniently "provides a source of infomation not easily available to nuns" (it is surprising how many of the relations or lovers of clerical women detectives turn out to be policemen!). He brings a wealthy socialite to take refuge with them, then there's a bizarre series of events (including shooting, kidnapping and murder) , until eventually all is solved by the elderly Sister Mary Teresa Dempsey (known, behind her back as Emtee Dempsey, or sometimes as Attila the nun) who thinks things out while sitting at home working away at her forthcoming book on the monastic movement in southern France in the twelfth century (in later books this becomes enlarged into "writing a massive history of the 12th century"). Unlike her colleagues in still being dressed in a traditional habit, "she was the last of a breed", but very much on the ball, being "capable of seeing something others did not see, not even one with the trained eye of a policeman". She is nothing if not formidable (having half a dozen honorary doctorates as well as her earned one), even keeping an old Luger pistol cleaned and oiled ... a true holy terror.
Most of her investigative legwork is done for her by the younger Sister Kimberly, who had had Emtee as a history tutor in her freshman year, and still has an unending admiration for her, although very aware of how difficult she can be to live with. It was Kim who realised, after witnessing criminals in the police squad room, that "these broken people were not strangers, alien to herself. They were brothers and sisters, the only difference being that their weakness and sin had become public". So, below the frivolous story, there are challenging ideas, as when it is explained that after selling the estate on which the dwindling college had been built, the surviving nuns had, quite literally, given most of the millions to the poor in cash: "Oh, it had been a lark, putting plump envelopes into all those outstretched hands." No wonder the cardinal and their mother house in Rome had not approved! I find this interplay of sometimes quite profound religious ideas and sheer fun quite intriguing. Recommended.
Let us Prey (1982)
Let us Prey, (the entertaining puns get worse as the series progresses) involves the Sisters with a series of murders linked by a local radio station and the 4- year-old son of one of the victims: "There are two possible ways a child will react to the sight of Sister Mary Teresa in the full regalia of the Order of Martha and Mary, and Freddy was fascinated rather than terrified". Just as well, because they were left looking after him. The redoubtable Sister ("Those who knew her loved her, to the degree one can love a curmudgeon") is warned off by Richard, the policeman brother of Sister Kim: "We have a nice big police force, and we like to do our own work", but, in the end, it is only she who can solve the mystery. "Richard and his colleagues could scarcely be expected to be overjoyed by such amateur assistance, particularly when it was helpful". Another lively and interesting story.
And Then There Was Nun (1984)
And Then There Was Nun sees the nuns investigating the mysterious death of the director and driving force behind the celebrated girls' soccer team, the Chicago Brass. I found this less interesting than her previous books, although Old Emtee is still firmly in charge: "It wasn't simply that she wished to help the police. In many instances she wanted to take their place ... She would say that nearly half a century as a historian equipped her far better than the police to get to the bottom of the deeds of men". As always in these books, the best parts are when she herself, or young Sister Kimberly, or housekeeper and cook Sister Joyce are inter-acting, and,even if the plot can't be taken too seriously, there is some feeling of reality behind all the nonsense: at the first victim's funeral, for example, there was "no forced eulogy of the deceased, rather a reminder to those in the pews that their lives too must end. Perhaps today. The fact that any of them might fall dead in his tracks in the course of the day was just that, a fact".
Nun of the Above (1985)
In Nun of the Above, Emtee Dempsey's long-suffering research assistant, Sister Kimberly, is sent, much against her will, to a particularly sleazy honky-tonk bar, complete with strippers, to investigate the death of another of Emtee's old students. This is another of the books in which all the suspects are eventually assembled in front of Emtee who plies them with drink then solves the mystery. It's a good story and fun to read.
Sine Qua Nun (1986)
Sine Qua Nun may have a pretentious title (sine qua non, of course, means a thing that is absolutely essential) but it gets off to a lively start with Emtee, for once out of her home, being driven by Sister Kim in the nuns' old Volkswagen to a TV studio in heavy snow to take part in a TV discussion. When the radical nun she expected to confront doesn't turn up (a pity this, as I'd like to have heard their discussion!), she is confronted instead by a sleazy best-selling author of semi-porno novels. In due course he is one of those who gets murdered, and Emtee is reckless enough to write the name of the murderer in a sealed envelope - and, of course, in the end she proves right. Amongst the varied cast is Pablo, the teenage idol: "He held his cigarette affectedly in one hand, put the other on his hip, and began to gyrate slowly as a sort of groaning began to issue from his lips .... It was one of Emtee Dempsey's observations that most of what is good but, more important, most of what is bad in human life can be traced to sex".
The Veil of Ignorance (1988)
The Veil of Ignorance tells how Emtee offers sanctuary to a woman who was convicted of murdering her husband and child but was released on a technicality. Even Sister Kim is sure Emtee is wrong to believe the woman innocent, especially when she herself confesses her guilt: "For the first time, Sister Mary Teresa was manifestly wrong, and there were altogether too many people who were not likely to let her forget it". Is the old nun at last losing her grip on reality? Emtee remains as curmudgeonly and engaging as ever, and the book is enlivened by the author's insight and humor : "Any wife probably thinks she has good reason to kill her husband".
Sister Hood (1991)
Sister Hood has one of those terrible dust jackets (see above) that too often seem to be inflicted on authors of clerical detective stories. This jacket totally fails to do justice to the sophistication of the formidable Sister. In the story, she offers to shelter a nun who is called to testify in a murder trial but who ends up murdered (the unfortunate fate of so many of Emtee's acquaintances and ex-students). Emtee herself is as interesting as ever: "Admittedly, she could be irritating and whimsical and, on occasion, if only in the short term, flat-out wrong". But the plot seems more run-of-the-mill than usual, except when she herself is present: "Direct questions posed no threat to her if she chose to conceal something. Double effect, mental reservation, some wrinkle in the definition of lying, would enable her to do what the uninstructed might regard as deliberately deceiving". But, of course, that's not how she sees it.
Nun Plussed (1993)
Nun Plussed involves a rare 13th century manuscript, and murder committed with a foot-high marble relica of Michelangelo's David. 77 year old Sister Mary Teresa sets a trap to catch the murderer, helped by "that pretty young redhead", Sister Kim, who explains that the old nun "can't get around as easily as she used to, and not everyone can come to the house to satisfy her curiosity ... Anything that concerns women who were students of hers she takes to be her business... She thinks she can do as good a job (as the police) and more quickly. And she's usually right". The story is at its best when one of these two nuns is actually present, but the author's sense of fun isn't confined to them; who else would call two matriarchal golfing ladies Mrs Waddles and Mrs Wiggles?
Half Past Nun (1997)
In Half Past Nun, Emtee sets out to identify a serial killer, helped by the computer skills of Mary Horan who, as a postulant, is considering joining her order, bringing their total number up to four. There are references back to what happened when their old college was closed: "The property was sold for a risible sum which was then dispensed to small groups of sisters living in apartments. How much of that money ever helped the poor?" The author seems to have forgotten the description in the first book of the series (see Not a Blessed Thing above) where it is explained that that millions were given away in cash! Never mind, it turns out that Emtee's mind is not starting to decay as her friends fear - but she is still able to sort out the murderer and offer helpful suggestions: "Thinking is by and large talking to oneself. When you do this aloud people are apt to be alarmed. Prayer is talking to Jesus, or to Mary, who are closer to us than we are to ourselves. Talk to them". This, of course, is what she does. Then, out of the blue, she is told that her order has been left a million and a half dollars for a new college to be set up for the study of the classics on condition that she is prepared "to promise that the order intends to take up again its mission to higher education". "Deo gratias" cried Emtee - as well she might. And so the series ends - with this being surely the most unlikely conclusion you could imagine.
Death takes the Veil and Other Stories (2001)
Death takes the Veil and Other Stories is a reprint of 7 stories and novellas originally published in magazines. Only 4 of them feature the nuns and I found them more melodramatic than convincing - but then I'm never too fond of short stories. The best of them is A Rose is a Rose is a Rose in which three roses are mysteriously delivered to the nuns each Saturday, and there is time for some interplay between the characters and room for humor: "God created whisky so the Irish wouldn't rule the world". There is also an interesting, if brief, introduction by McInerny in which he explains "How I Took the Veil", that is, how he came to write the Emtee novels.
There is much information about McInerny and his distinguished career on the University of Notre Dame site, and a full list (with publication dates) of his crime novels on the Fantastic fiction site.
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