|Father Roger Dowling
(creator: Ralph McInerny)
Father Roger Dowling had worked for more than 15 years on the Chicago Archdiocesan Marriage Council as a canon lawyer dealing with all those cases "paraded past the canonical eye in quest of an annulment." He had a doctorate in canon law and "been on the upper rungs of the clerical ladder of success" and so one of "the small group from which the bishops of the future are chosen". But this was not to be. "Eventually the repitition, the law's delay, the not-quite-honesty on all sides and the relative helplesssness of the tribunal, outpost of as it was of a bureaucracy thousands of miles away where the truly difficult, truly interesting cases must be sent for decision - eventually all these took toll." He had met too many unhappy people whom he could not help.
His hair had "thinned, revealing the narrow domed skull that was the trepository of so much borrowed human grief. Like many tall people, he had early acquired a slight stoop and, as he grew older, sadder if not wiser, his posture suggested he was ready to shoulder whatever tragedy was brought to him." But increasingly he was wondering, "How could a merciful God permit whole lives to be wasted, caught by what seemed a mere legal technicality?"
Deeply affected by all this. he had gradually taken to drink. But with help from a sanitorium doctor, who had told him that his drinking was "only a symptom of the fact that you hated your work", he quit drinking and explains to the chancellor, "I have always wanted a parish".
There were few young people left in the parish. the school was closed" and become a parish center for old people. Dowling had really been sent there "as a species of punishment". But he gets to love pastoral life there and eventually regains his sense of vocation, much helped by meeting up again with Phil Keegan, an old friend and committed Catholic, and now chief of detectives.
Dowling "was unmistakably a priest. Whatever the reluctance of his fellow priests to appear in the traditional priestly garb, Roger Dowling always wore a black suit, rabat, and Roman collar." He is a real traditionalist, disliking the way that modern liturgists had "pursued their off-Broadway antics", but he is a kindly, patient man: "a quiet pipe-smoking pensive priest". Even if he was "not happy about all the changes in Holy Mother Church .... he had no doubt that she would muddle through." For relaxation, he enjoys sitting back watching sport on TV.
Ralph McInerny (1929 - 2010), who had been born in Minneapolis, had intended to become a priest but, after service with the US Marines, had decided that celibacy was not for him. Instead he became a philospher and teacher. He had a BA from St Paul's Seminary, Minnesota, an MA from the University of Minnesota, and a PhD in philosophy from Laval University, Quebec. He was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame University in 1969 where he was to teach for more than 50 years, and where he became director of the Jacques Maritain Center. He was a convinced conservative, never really accepting the institutional reforms of his church, and was strongly oppsed to homosexuality, abortion and women priests. He was also a convinced Irish Republican although not a supporter of violence. He published a large number of books on religious subjects (he is a recognised authority on St Thomas Aquinas), and his 81 novels include 30 that feature Father Dowling, and he also wrote numerous short stories about him.
He also wrote ten entertaining novels about the elderly, eccentric detective nun, Sister Mary Teresa. For these he used the nom de plume of Monica Quill. He explained that 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".
Her Death of Cold (1977)
Dowling is pleased to meet up again with Phil Keegan, now Chief of the local detectives, who had begun training for a priest at the same seminary as Dowling but had left "after a year of theology".
One of the more interesting possible villains is the not-too-succesful but unscrupulous con man Anthony Mendax, who visits her house disguised as a priest. This leads to an amusing scene when her door is opened by another man also dressed as a priest: Father Dowling, no less.
Another suspect is her son-in-law who admits to putting her body in the freezer. But the story is not wildly exciting, and the supposed climax, in which possible suspects are rounded up to tell their stories yet again, seems distinctly tedious. And it does not even reveal the identity of the murderer. This is later told to Father Dowling under the seal of confession - but luckily police Chief Keegan had other investigations in progress that led him to the same conclusion.
Not too much is said about Dowling's inner thoughts or religious beliefs except for his complaint that the funeral mass "now put the emphasis on resurrection, joy, and hope. Dowling considered this psychologically if not theologically wrong. It tended to suggest that death was of small moment and grief an aberration. Yet our Lord had wept over Lazarus and He had feared to die himself. Those proofs of Christ's humanity seemed put in question by a liturgy that called for smiles and false bravura." It would have been interesting to have heard more about thoughts like these - with less emphasis on the comparatively dreary machinations of the plot.
The Seventh Station (1977)
The clerical background is now thoroughly convincing. Theological ideas are never far from Dowlin's mind, as when he explains Pascal's Gamble: "Imagine that we have no way of knowing whether a life beyond this one awaits us. Of course the Christian religion is nonsense if there is no future life. Therefore, one might think, until he knows if heaven or hell awaits him, until he knows there is a future life, he has no solid reason for accepting Christianity. Pascal proposed that one gamble that Christianity is true, that one live this life on the assumption that there will be either eternal reward or eternal punishment. It is a gamble one cannot lose. Either Christianity is true, there is an eternal life and one's conduct earns him heaven or there is no eternal life and one does not survive to regret his gamble."
Father Dowling emerges as a very real character. Other entertaining characters include the over-eager young Father Bovril, who had taken over Dowling's parish for the week that he was away. It is he who warns Dowling that Assisi House "is not one of our more up-to-date places .... Father, there you will have difficulty believing that the Second Vatican Council ever took place".
Bishop as Pawn (1978)
Other interesting characters include Father Ambrose Chirichi who had broken away from the hierarchy. He had chosen to work with "the girls, the pimps, the hustlers of various kinds, the peddlers and users. Chirichi slept on a cot in a bare room at the back of the leather store, doubling as watchman. He thought, this is where Christ would be if he were alive today.... He said Mass in the back room of the leather store at any time of the day or night. He substituted freely for the traditional bread and wine. He let anyone who wanted to share in the eucharist .... And if someone tried to get him into an argument over whether Jesus had really lived, or really said this or that, Chirichi just smiled. Jesus was the name for what is good and peaceful. Not a man." The authorities, of course, did not approve, but Chirichi had been consecrated a priest and they could not change that.
Dowling has, as his friend Bishop Rooney tells him, "the knack for being at the center of strange happenings". It is he who finds the Bishop after he has been kidnapped, and, with the help of Captain Keegan, finally sees him rescued.
It is an entertaining story with the amiable and thoughtful Father Dowling making an increasingly interesting central character.
Lying Three (1979)
Unfortunately Father Dowling himself, still aged 50, plays a very small part in all this, beyond helping to hide an ex-member of Anne and Archy, an American terrorist organisation. This, the author finds it necessary to explain, is "strained humorous play on the word anarchy". Dowling often thought, "If there was a difference beween Phil Keegan and himself, it lay in this: Phil's concern was justice while his own was mercy." So, even when murder is confessed to him, and he engages in long conversations with Keegan, he can't pass on the information, so the lengthy conversations grow more and more one-sided, and end up by becoming distinctly tedious.
There is little action to speed things up. And most of the characters, whether crooks or business men, are totally immemorable. What a pity that the author has abandoned the clerical setting that he understands so well for this uninteresting story, that I, for one, found it really hard work to read. Not recomended.
Second Vespers (1980)
Amidst the jockeying of rival claimants, including a librarian with forged letters, a bookshop owner with O'Rourke's supposed childhood diary, and a blackmailer, the first dead body is discovered - and it is Dowling who finally works out what is going on. But it does not make a very gripping story, and the characters, apart from that of Dowling, are not all that interesting or convincing. And it seems a pity, when Dowling spends so much time with his close friend, chief of detectives Phil Keegan, that not for "the first time he had known things Phil Keegan would have liked to know but had not told him". It does not make for exciting story-telling.
Thicker than Water (1981)
As usual the plot may be less than gripping, but it there are some interesting new characters including a frustrated author whose stutter prevented him from making himself understood so he had turned to writing to express himself, but whose only success had been in writing religious pamphlets. "One priest cancelled his order because the pamphlets contained no imprimatur. Marcus Riehle never made that mistake again. Each of his pamphlets bore the imprimatur of a bishop in New Mexioco who would have been surprised to learn he had granted it." And there's a sharp new black woman cop who is very much on the ball.
Characters from previous books include the dodgy lawyer Tuttle "for whom a law degree represented a license to enrich himself at the expense of his clients and little else", and, of course Dowling's old friend captain of detectives Phil Keegan, who still tells Dowling a great deal even if he gets little back from him beyond encouragement and support. But Father Dowling himself is more often present than in the previous books, so it is one of the more interesting books.
A Loss of Patients (1982)
Interest lessens when the identity of the murderer is revealed to us just after a third of the way through the book but, even so, some suspense builds up towards the end, when Father Dowling confronts the person he now knows (through someone else's confession, not by any astute detective work of his own) to be the murderer. Dowling's life is saved, as usual, by the last minute arrival of the police who had reached the same conclusion but by different means.
There seems no limit to the time Dowling can spend chatting to Keegan, and he can even set off with him on a five hour car trip at a moment's notice. He consoles himself with the notion that "a day away from the rectory could be a way of ensuring that he would do his work there better". But he seldom seems to spend time with his parishioners except when there's some murder connection.
We are told that Dowling's aim in helping Keegan track down murderers "was to be a means God used to dispense His mercy". It was the condition of the murderer's soul that interested him: "God pursued him, not with an eye to punishment, but in order to forgive and reconcile". Once the murderer had been caught, and his punishment was assured, Dowling felt that "he was that much readier for mercy. Not human forgiveness - who could extend that to a man who had murdered four fellow human beings? But there is One who is the union of justice and mercy and it was before His bar that he hoped to bring" him. The author just leaves it at that. There is never any real exploration of Dowling's faith and how he expresses it.
Apart from the build-up to the ending, there is little excitement in the story-telling, and characters like the demented dentist are not all that convincing. The jokey title suggests that even the author didn't take it all too seriously.
The Grass Widow (1983)
Then there's a gangland shoot-out and it requires all of Captain of Detectives Phil Keegan's and Father Dowling's determination and luck to identify the murderer. And in the process Keegan gets cross (and very justifiably so) with Dowling for sharing with him so little of what he knows, although he is still prepared to pass him off as "chaplain of the Police Department" so that he can include him in some interviews.
Another of Keegan's problems is the political pressure imposed on him by Robertson, the Chief of Police, who was a political appointee, "a beneficiary of the gang that had controlled Fox River politics since before Kegan joined the department", so would not do anything to upset them. Then there is the not-too-bright "Peanuts" Pianone, who only got a job as a policeman "thanks to family connections". All this does not offer a very encouraging picture of American society at the time.
In the end, Dowling once again finds his life threatened, and has to be rescued, in the nick of time, by Keegan. This is quite exciting, but as the narrative occasionally jumps back in time, it can get a little confusing. Although there are some entertaining characters, it is becoming increasingly obvious that McInerny's agent's initial hope that these books would rival those featuring Kemelman's Rabbi Small will never be realised, as they do not have the same deep human interest and offer such a realistic yet affectionate portrayal of the local community. But, even so, they must have sold well at the time, or there would not have been so many of them!
Getting a Way with Murder (1984)
it is another not too exciting plot with some not wildly interesting characters, excluding the old familiars Father Dowling, Phil Keegan and housekeeper Marie Murkin, who still hold the interest. But Dowling is no great detective. He is just a good listener to whom people seem happy to unburden their secrets - and not just in the confessional. So, it sometimes seems that he just has to sit back, puff at his pipe, and all is revealed to him, even if Phil Keegan has been told to drop his investigations for political reasons.
Rest in Pieces (1985)
This is a much more interesting book than its predecessors. There is not only much more excitement and action (perhaps a little too much to be entirely credible) but characters like the laughed-at fat Bernard (who was not too bright but had been told by his elder brother that "his vocation was to stay right there in Fox River and look after the folks and that is just what he had done") come to life so that we really start to empathise with them.
We discover more about Dowling too as he wondered about "the apparent inconsequence of so many lives" and "told himself that, without religious faith, he would find life intolerable, certainly unintelligible. Not that faith cast a blinding eye on events, but it shored up the obscurity with the conviction that, despite appeareances, in the long run, from God's point of view, it all makes sense." He is becoming more real too, as he teases his housekeeper Marie Murkin who had wanted to know exactly why he had been phoning one of the Patrick Gallaghers:
There is a quote on the dust cover from William X Kienzle's novel Kill and Tell in which Father Koesler praises the Father Dowling mysteries: "In Koesler's opinion, with the exception of J F Powers and those authors who were or had been priests, McInerny was the only creator of a fictional priest who truly captured what it was like to be a priest". Be this as it may, this particular book succeeds in holding the interest throughout, and is the best of the series so far.
The Basket Case (1987)
Dowling seems very human in the way he can't help teasing his housekeepeer Marie. When he tells her about the murder of the baby's father, Marie comments, "Someone seems bent on wiping out the entire family."
Tuttle, the seedy lawyer, is mildly entertaining, as when he persuades his potential helper old Tom that when he seems asleep at his desk, he is really just working things out: "What I try for is a state resembling sleep, but still conscious, and I let the old subconscious earn her keep."
"His Mass at noon was the focal point of Roger Dowling's day, the memorial of the sacrifice that had redeemed mankind from sin." This seems genuine enough for him, as opposed to the unlikely plot which is really not strong enough to hold the interest throughout. It is only right at the end that Dowling "finally realized who had killed Peter Rush" - which is more than Phil Keegan or the reader can possibly be expected to have done.
The rather weak story is not helped by all the misprints in the English paperback edition.
Abracadaver (also known as Slight of Body) (1989)
Father Dowling who not only conducts victims' funerals but hears confessions too, is well placed to solve the mysteries - even if at the end he has to fight off the murderer. Not that he felt free to share all that he knew with his old friend police chief Phil Keegan: "It was painful to Roger Dowling to know what he knew and to keep it from his old friend" but he saw that "nothing would be gained by speaking up".
This is a short, often amusing story, with a coherent and sometimes violent plot that holds the attention throughout. Characters like the dying old Willis Wirth are made to seem real. It is he who "to the dismay of his family, had become a Catholic at the age of seventy-two after an acquisitive and irreligious life had left him wealthy but wondering, at last, what it all meant." He loved discussing theological points with Dowling, and "Dowling was ready to give him all the comfort he could, as a priest and as a friend". It seems a very real relationship. "Maybe people would scoff at someone getting religion when he has cancer but who isn't dying?"
Even minor characters like "certfied and licenced private investigator" Dave Horowitz come to life too. It had always been his ambition to become a policeman "but at five feet, two inches, he simply couldn't qualify even if he had been a lot smarter." So he had taken a correspondence course and set up as a not very successful private investigator. He is hired by unscrupulous greedy lawyer Tuttle who has his own reasons for dong this - but the author seems to write about even Tuttle with some affection.
Dowling's own faith shines through. "It is wise not to get too far from God," he tells Willis's daughter.
There is a sense of fun too, as when police chief Phil Keegan 'phones the rectory and jokingly addresses Dowling's housekeeper, Marie Murkin, whom he has known for years: "Captain Keegan returning Father Dowling's call."
This is one of the better books in the series. Recommended.
Four on the Floor (1989)
Father Dowling too comes across as a real priest. He puts off speaking to O'Halloran's daughter as "He did not like to break his habit of recollecting himself thoroughly before saying Mass. It was his chief function as a priest, saying Mass, and he did not want it to become mere routine." But even so, he still cannot help himself wondering throughout why she has come to him.
When she tells him how she had "expected more from life than a house in Paddington and a couple of kids and a solid husband and a succession of days exactly like one another', he thinks, "The Romantic Agony. He did not say it. Nor did he feel condescending to her. The human heart was made for far more than this world can give."
The second story, Heart of Gold, is a more lightweight and much less interesting anecdote about an old man who is abducted off the steps of St Hilary's Church. He had just spent seven years in prison for for embezzling the bank where he had worked of large sums of money. But it had been stolen from him before he had spent any of it. Father Dowling is able to find out where the money really was, as if the reader didn't already know.
The third story, The Dead Weight Lifter, starts with a body deposited at St Hilary's school, now used as a welfare centre for seniors. Father Dowling, who has to take the funeral, discovers that he was one of Chicago's richest men -- and his death was no accident. There is a dispute about his will, and Father Dowling reflects, "The pursuit of it (wealth) is finally a protest against the inevitability of death, and that is why it is not a materialistic but profoundly spiritual flaw. It is the recognition that the wealth one has, however great, cannot stave off debt that explains the constant pursuit of more. It is also why everyone, rich and poor, is open to avarice."
The last story, The Dutiful Son, sees Father Dowling agreeing to help a man fulfill his mother's last wish by it exhuming and reburying the body of an infant who had died 50 years before. But the body in question proves out to be someone quite different. The final conclusion, however, is not very convincing.
Judas Priest (1991)
This gets off to an interesting start, but loses pace in the long stretches when Dowling himself is not actually present. And there are numbers of unsavoury characters who do not hold the interest, although the slightly disreputable and struggling lawyer Tuttle is treated with more sympathy than usual. There is. however, some amusing interplay between Dowling and his housekeeper Marie, who very much disapproves of him having anything to do with the renegade priest who had "blandly admitted that he himself had not been true to his promise of celibacy and infuriated his fellow priests ... by claiming that it was doubtful 10% of the clergy led celibate lives. 'The ones over seventy,' he added with a smile."
"In all due respect," Christopher tells Dowling, "I find it hard to believe that a man of your intelligence really thinks all that stuff (about God) is true. I don't think I ever did, not really .... Finally I decided to stop fooling myself."
Desert Sinner (1992)
Most of the usual characters appear. There is a particularly amusing description of sleazy lawyer Tuttle, complete, as always, with his old tweed hat, trying to interest a firm of up-market lawyers in some tapes that he has acquired and that he tells them may prove useful in the Stacey Wilson appeal that there are handling. Inclined at first not to treat him seriously, they soon find that he can more than speak up for himself.
The old teasing relationship between Dowling's busybody housekeeper Marie and him and Phil Keegan is still quite entertaining: "What kind of soup is this, Marie?" asked Phil.
A new character who is treated particularly sympathetically is Phil Keegan's secretary, Elaine, who is prevailed upon by her unscrupulous new boyfriend to pass him a copy of a Keegan memo, and whose previous boring boyfriend Walter reacts in a way she could never have expected.
Unfortunately, though, the basic story is not all that interesting or exciting.
Seed of Doubt (1993)
As the family squabbles over the contents of her will, it becomes clear to Father Dowling that neither the old woman's life nor her death was ordinary. Then a second death occurs in the Sinclair mansion, and a tragic mystery from the old woman's youthful honeymoon re-emerges to affect her heirs. Both it seems are somehow connected to the portrait.
It is a much more complex story than the previous ones, and Dowling himself does not really do very much detection, although, as usual, he takes the funerals and is a member of the board that Mrs Sinclair set up "to ensure a continued contribution by the Sinclair family to the Roman Catholic church, locally, nationally, beyond".
His housekeeper, Marie, is worried about rumours that his new responsibilities may mean him having have to give up the parish. He assures her that "God and the cardinal being willing. He intended to stay at St Hilary's until he was carried out in a box. 'So don't spread any rumours, Marie. I know you have designs on my job, but the cardinal's hands are tied.' "
In fact, Dowling "did not begrudge his work with the Sinclair Foundation but he was determined not to let it interfere with his regular pastoral life". And he uses the stipend it earns him to enable a young man to go to college. Even so, he thinks that "too much of his time was being taken up with matters concerning the Sinclair family." But from the reader's point of view, it would have been more interesting if he had been more closely involved throughout.
There are amusing character sketches of eccentrics like art expert Professor Gearhart Glockner, a perfect illustration of the fact that "Art history is the fate awaiting those who realise they will never be artists." And lawyer Tuttle, although still "a little sleazy", is for once quite successful and continues to amuse.
It makes quite a good story about the machinations of the art world, but is rather lengthy and seems particularly so when Father Dowling is not himself present. But, after more deaths, it moves to quite an exciting climax.
A Cardinal Offense (1994)
Meanwhile Father Dowling is approached by Michael Geary, who wants an annulment of his marriage to his wife. Reluctantly drawn into the couple's stormy marriage, Dowling's interest intensifies when Geary is murdered - but worse is to follow, and there is even an attempt to kidnap the cardinal in which Dowling gets much too closely involved.
This is set against a background in which the Catholic world had "undergone a radical change since the closing of the second Vatican Council in 1965.... In the Western countries, priests and nuns abandoned their consecrated lives and returned to the world, while elsewhere vocations flourished. But in the west, "petitions for annulments increased. In the United States of America some 40,000 annulments a year were being granted."
So it is no wonder that the German Cardinal Josef Hildebrand (an obvious reference to the real-life Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to be Pope Benedict XVI ) comes from Rome to tighten things up. Dowling seems to have much more sympathy for him than for the theologians at Notre Dame, the university where the author himself teaches. When the Gearys' daughter Kate, tells him that her husband is doing graduate work in the theology department at Notre Dame, he cannot help saying, "Good God."
But "ever since 1968 when, after three long years of delay, Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, stating that nothing justified changing the age-old ban on contraception, moral theologians had been in revolt ... For more than a quarter century a dissident moral theology had been taught in seminaries, and a whole generation of priests emerged who were wholly indisposed even to inform lay-people about official Church teaching on sexual morality." And "annulments became almost as frequent and as easily obtained as civil divorce. Celibacy was attacked on all sides." These were not changes that Dowling welcomed. But, in fact, they seem so much more important and interesting than the complicated machinations of this unlikely plot of murder and mayhem.
Odd characters who appear in the story include the Gearys' son Brian who "was going to become a monk ... now he wants to be a hermit." It is amazing how many characters in these stories decide they want to enter a monastery or a convent - often one per book! But Tuttle ("Fox River's least distinguished lawyer") with his one and only friend the not-too-bright policeman Peanuts Pianone continue to entertain.
The story is both lengthy and confusing, partly because of the very short chapters that jump abruptly from one set of characters to another. The best part is the beginning which concentrates on Father Dowling and his immediate problems
The Case of the Constant Caller (1994)
The story tells how Janet Hospers and Gerry Krause, two 16-year-olds, have summer jobs at the St Hilary's Community Centre. When an older parishioner finds his prized computer is missing, the two friends join the hunt for the thief. A paroled criminal who resides in Fox River is the prime suspect of the local police -- but they find there may be another answer to the mystery. With the help of Janet's younger brother, Carl, a computer expert and hacker, they help Father Dowling track down the real culprit.
It's a rather tame story, with the usual ending of Father Dowling being rescued from imminent death, but this time the rescuer is not captain of detectives Phil Keegan, but the young hero. Otherwise it's the mixture much as before but with the more interesting parts left out.
The Case of the Dead Winner (1995)
It tells how old Mrs. Mortimer, a lonely elderly woman and retired university professor, needs some help around her house so she hires twelve-year-old Carl Hospers to cut the lawn and do odd jobs. Carl likes Mrs Mortimer, and appreciates the extra money, which he hopes to use to buy a CD drive for his computer. But one day a strange couple stops by while Carl is working: it's Mrs Mortimer's daughter Alice (who is realistically described as being "overwhelmed by the sadness of things") and her weird boyfriend Sal (who had "the deadest fish eyes Carl had ever seen"). Something about the visit troubles Carl, and he looks up Sal's name on the computer database of the Fox River police, and finds that he has a criminal record.
Sal and an elderly admirer of Mrs. Mortimer's ( who had "the same eyes" as Sal) both seem to show a strange interest in an envelope that Carl has hidden for Mrs. Mortimer. Could it contain the key to a safe box left her by her dead husband? Despite the presence of Father Dowling, it is young Carl who plays the leading part in solving the murder mystery that follows.
The usual entertaining characters appear and the plot develops at a brisker pace than usual, although we are told that Mrs, Mortimer cannot remember what twelve-year-olds looked like as many as three times! And the large sum of money that ends up by being left to the St Hilary Center never even seems to get a mention in subsequent stories. But, although it is an improvement on the previous book, you can see why there were no further stories for "young adults", whoever they are.
The Tears of Things (1996)
Meanwhile Father Dowling is troubled by Winegar's presence in Fox River where he seems to be cutting a swathe through the town's female population. More deaths follow, and though Winegar is arrested, the evidence against him does not seem to add up. A combination of Father Dowling, the more-successful-than-usual seedy lawyer Tuttle, and captain of detectives Phil Keegan, eventually bring the culprit to justice in a dramatic shoot-out.
It is another lengthy and complicated story that, as so often happens in these books, gets off to a promising start but goes on far too long. Characters such as the deceived widow Clare Ponander, the ever-persistent Tuttle, the lonely Phil Keegan and even the philanderer Jerome Winegar are treated sympathetically, but Dowling's semi-feud with his eavesdropping housekeeper Marie, although sometimes amusing, is getting to appear increasingly acerbic.
There are some amusing lines, as when Keegan asks Dowling to talk to one of the suspects, and Dowling replies, "I never interfere in police business." And he "kept a straight face when he said this". But the plot meanders on with the occasional appearance of a dead body, as usual often right at the end of a chapter, to keep us interested. But there is little feeling of suspense as the identity of Kate's (Nancy's sister's?) parents are revealed quite early on. And when Dowling himself is not playing a leading part, interest soon wanes.
Grave Undertakings (2000)
it is a much more coherent story than some of the previous ones, and Father Dowling is rather more closely involved. It is also shorter which is a big advantage. Even so, there seem a few more flashbacks than seem strictly necessary, as these inevitably slow down the action. Even, right near end, when Father Dowling is putting two and two together, the outcome is delayed by a rather tedious list of his thoughts. But the jumping around from one character to another is made less confusing by the way that one of their names is used to head each chapter.
But on the positive side, there is a nice lightness of touch, as when O'Toole's bullet-ridden body is on display at McDivitt's funeral home, that is packed with fellow gangsters. Father Dowling comments to Cecil McDivett, "What a crowd."
By and large, we are told that the Pianone family "were honourable thieves. Extortion, contraband, unsavoury bars with questionable entertainment were about the extent of it ... No police force can be expected to do what religion, good example, and the fear of being caught have failed to accomplish. Any city, even Fox River, Illinois, must tolerate some evil. The Pianones played an unheralded part in seeing that it did not get out of hand. It did not get out of hand because it did not get out of their hands."
One of their most insignificant and least bright members was Peanuts who had been wished on the police force. He was a close friend of Tuttle, the seedy lawyer, "and they were often together, bottom feeders in the tank of life." it was Tuttle who "had gone through law school three times, so to speak, taking classes again and again until eventually he passed them."
The mobsters were led by the immaculate figure of Salvatore Pianone, the highly sophisticated collector of rare books, who highly surprisingly, tells Dowling right on the last page that "he wanted to go to confession". There is even a rumour (which Dowling doubted) that the whole gangster clan were going out of business. It's hard to believe, but then so is much of the plot. But it succeeds in holding the interest.
All the usual cast are there, including Dowling's housekeeper Marie, the disreputable lawyer Tuttle (who surprisingly emerges as the hero when he knocks the villain out by hitting him on the head with a statue of St Anne), the patrician lawyer Amos Cadbury, and the taciturn and rather boring ex- is Hungarian policeman Lietuenant Cy Horvath.
Captain of detectives, Phil Keegan, still lives his lonely (except for Father Dowling) life, finding when he had to deal with a new murder, that "The memory of his (late) wife was evoked by death, by sad inexplicable happenings, by the sense that all our hopes and plans sooner or later will be crushed in the traffic of time." This is one of the few realistic parts of the story.
Newcomers including the glamorous lawyer Mario Liberati and his fiancée Colleen (niece of the retired professor) and lawyer Tim Gallagher (son of the ex-disc jockey). It all gets very complicated and distinctly tedious, not helped by the way that Father Dowling himself plays only a comparatively small part in much of it. But he remains unflappable throughout: "One of the attractions of this parish of which Father Dowling was ashamed to boast, was that in a sense, so very little went on there". Apart of course from a constant stream of most unlikely murders!
|The stories are of very variable quality. This first book in the series was not the most interesting.|
|This British paperback edition featured a photo of Tom Bosley who played Father Dowling in the American TV series. All 43 episodes are now available on DVD in the USA.|
|This was one of two Father Dowling books that were written specifically for young adults - starting with the author's grandchildren.|