Recently I wrote about Roman Catholic priests and nuns who entertain us as amateur sleuths. And I freely admitted that my favorite clergy/sleuth of all fictiondom is Father John Blackwood Ryan, of “Call Me Blackie” fame. I have always believed that Blackie Ryan is the alter ego of his creator, Roman Catholic priest and sociologist, Father Andrew M. Greeley.
What’s so special about Greeley? I’m glad you asked. Andrew Greeley was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1954. While working as an associate pastor (parish priest), he continued his education and received his PhD in sociology in 1962. A prolific writer, Greeley published nonfiction books regularly while also writing columns for secular and religious newspapers on topics similar to the subjects of his books: religion, ethnicity, modern American culture, and, yes, sex.
I discovered Father Greeley about thirty years ago, shortly after he began writing fiction. In books such as Thy Brother’s Wife and Ascent into Hell, Greeley used family drama and interpersonal relationships to examine each individual relationship to a very personal God. I quickly became a fan of Greeley’s fiction and read some of his less scholarly nonfiction as well.
In the mid 1980s, to my great joy, Andrew Greeley discovered that mystery is the medium! Happy Are the Meek, the first Blackie Ryan novel, hit the shelves and was an instant success. Once again Greeley had found a way to use his fiction to help the reader find a path to God. No sermonizing, no proselytizing, just great fiction generally including a locked room mystery and if the reader finds religious comfort in the book, that is always a bonus but not at all necessary.
Each year at least two Greeley novels would be released and most years a sociological work of nonfiction as well, and then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, in 1994 Irish Gold, the first of the Nuala Anne McGrail mystery novels appeared. They showcase a fey Irish mystic who is able to solve crimes in the present as well as in the past. I quickly became enchanted with Nuala Anne, and Greeley just as quickly moved her to his beloved Chicago allowing her to become a regular in the rotation of Greeley books.
I always enjoyed Father Greeley’s nonfiction and was grateful that from time to time, he would publish a collection of newspaper columns in a concise format. In A Piece of My Mind... on Just About Everything, there is a reprint of Greeley’s captivating essay entitled “Stephen King’s Horror Has a Healing Power.” In it Greeley suggests that after reading one of King’s horror books (he references Cujo which was fairly current at the time) it would be appropriate to read Danse Macabre, in which Stephen King explains his own fascination with horror.
Greeley explains King’s process by saying:
Stephen King never ends his stories with any cheap or easy hope. People are badly hurt, they suffer and some of them die, but others survive the struggle and manage to grow. The powers of evil have not yet done them in. It is little enough but it is all there is, Mr. King seems to be saying. The mother and father in Cujo lost their four-year-old son as the book ends they seem to be finding one another, In this respect, at any rate, the horror story is profoundly religious. It celebrates only smidgens of hope, but hope, like goodness and love, need only to exist to finally win.
And I believe that Andrew Greeley took a similar path. He chose fiction to help us identify love and hope and goodness in a way that all the sociological or religious treatises never could.
In 2008 Father Greeley stepped from a cab and his coat caught in the door, knocking him to the ground as the cab pulled away. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and has not published any fiction or nonfiction since 2009. He is still able to communicate with family and friends and also to concelebrate Mass with a fellow priest in attendance.
My greatest wish is that all the joy and solace Andrew Greeley has provided to his readers be reflected back to him. Thank you for every word, Father Greeley.
Terrie Farley Moran’s recent collection of short stories, THE AWARENESS and other deadly tales, is currently available in e-format for the Nook and for the Kindle. Terrie blogs at Women of Mystery. www.womenofmystery.net and her short story “Jake Says Hello” can be found in the December 2012 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.