Fri
Dec 7 2012 12:30pm

Trespass (Not) Against Us: Clerical Sleuths, Part 3

Recently I talked about some of the clergy sleuths, I’ve read avidly through the years, and since Criminal Element folks are always ready to share, the comments of that post introduced some new-to-me clergy who are inclined to solve mysteries. At the time I said I’d come back and talk about some of my favorite Roman Catholic priests and nuns who solve murders as a sideline, so here I am.

In her wonderful post Kerry Hammond talks about many a superstar clergy sleuth, including Father Dowling. Still, I feel compelled to add a few words of my own about the highly entertaining priest/sleuth created by Ralph M. McInerny.

Early in life, Ralph McInerny had considered becoming a priest, but decided instead to become a philosopher. For more than fifty years he taught Philosophy at Notre Dame. He wrote both fiction and nonfiction extensively. Although I enjoyed many of his mysteries including nearly every book in the Notre Dame series, I think he will always be best remembered for the mystery series which features the loveable, worldly, and wise Father Dowling, pastor of St. Hilary’s Parish, who teams up with his long ago seminary school mate and current police chief of Fox River, Phil Keegan, to unravel major crimes as well as small transgressions. I was delighted when the Father Dowling Mysteries aired first on NBC and then on ABC for more than forty entertaining, quirky episodes.

Of all the books McInerny wrote under various pseudonyms, those he wrote as Monica Quill are the most fun. They star the very eccentric Sister Mary Teresa Dempsey, Superior of the Order of Martha and Mary, which has dwindled in number to three, Sisters Teresa, Kimberly, and Joyce. When a crime occurs, (and it is amazing how often that happens!) Sister Teresa, acting in grand Nero Wolfe style, sends her subordinates scurrying to investigate for her. She badgers Sister Kim’s police officer brother, and in the end, barely leaving her chair, much less the house, Sister Mary Teresa solves the crime. Ralph McInerny passed away in 2010 so the twenty nine Father Dowling books and ten Sister Mary Teresa books that we have presently are all that will ever be.

William X. Kienzle, a former priest himself, wrote twenty four novels with Detroit priest Father Robert Koesler as protagonist. Within these books Kienzie deals directly with the great changes that took place in the Catholic Church after Vatican Two. He also used his fiction to bring to the fore the difficulties facing the city of Detroit. The Father Koesler books are edgier than the Father Dowling books but no less enjoyable.

The author of the Sister Mary Helen books, Sister Carol Anne O’Marie was a Sister of Saint Joseph for more than sixty years until her death in 2009. Sister Mary Helen is a whirling dervish compared to Sister Mary Teresa. Retired from teaching grammar school at the age of seventy five, Sister Mary Helen moves on to teach at a college in San Francisco. And of course there is murder. In this series Sister Mary Helen bounces along at a pace that would exhaust me and I’m a decade younger than she is. Whether in San Francisco or in Ireland, if there is a crime, Sister Mary Helen will dispatch the criminal in no time flat.

And then there is my absolute favorite, Father John Blackwood Ryan, a funny little Chicago priest. (During the series Ryan was elevated to Monsignor, Bishop, and finally Archbishop within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.) His favorite opening line is, “Call Me Blackie.” And so, everyone does. Father Andrew M. Greeley is a priest and sociologist who developed Blackie as a character in his wide ranging family sagas of the lace curtain Irish Americans of Chicago. Eventually Blackie moved on to his own series of nearly twenty mystery novels, eight of which have titles reflecting the Beatitudes attributed to Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, i.e., Happy Are Those Who Thirst for Justice, Happy are the Peace Makers, etc. Blackie Ryan’s priesthood is punctuated by a theology more modern than what Catholics generally hear from Rome and he uses his keen wit and profound knowledge of human nature to solve locked room mysteries and without seeming to preach, draws an unambiguous correlation between sin and crime. I’ve always believed that Father Greeley channeled his own personality into John Blackwood Ryan. And for that alone, I’m sure I’ll be talking about Father Greeley again very soon.


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 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.

Read all posts by Terrie Farley Moran for Criminal Element.

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4 comments
Deborah Lacy
1. DeborahLacy
Love this. So many clergy mysteries, so little time.
Terrie Farley Moran
2. Terrie
Deb, this is the third post about clerical sleuths and we have barely seen the tip of the iceberg. (cliche alert.) It would take years to find and read them all, and yet, I keep trying. Does anyone have a fave I should try?
3. Jeff Baker
Cynthia Manson edited the Signet anthology "Thou Shalt Not Kill," which featured clerical sleuths. "Murder Most Catholic" (ed. Ralph McInerny) and "Murder Most Sacred" (ed. Edward D. Hoch) feature Catholic detection, some by clergy. Hoch's own stories frequently feature Catholic themes as well as a few sleuthing clergy. Hope that's a start, Terrie!
Terrie Farley Moran
4. Terrie
Ooohhh, anthologies!! Jeff, that is a great start. Thanks so much.
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