The Father Dowling mysteries (1977-2011) – Ralph McInerny

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on October 30, 2018 by cshmurak

The Father Dowling mysteries by Ralph McInerny must have been quite popular because McInerny’s publisher (St. Martin’s from the ’80s on) kept them in print for so many years. Yet the only major mystery award that McInerny seems to have won is a Bouchercon Life Achievement award in 1993; no single title was even nominated for an Agatha or an Anthony.

I’ve now read three of them: the first, Her Death of Cold (1977), and two later ones, Prodigal Father (2002) and Ash Wednesday (2008). I found the debut novel a little slow, but greatly enjoyed the other two; perhaps this is a series that grew better over time. McInerny was certainly a prolific author. A professor of philosophy and medieval studies at Notre Dame University for over 50 years, he wrote two other mystery series (one that was set at Notre Dame), several standalone mysteries, and many books on philosophy and the Catholic Church.

Father Roger Dowling, an expert on canon law and a former member of the Archdiocesan Marriage Court, is a recovering alcoholic who had become disillusioned with his vocation. As part of his recovery, he became the parish priest at St. Hilary’s church in Fox River, a suburb of Chicago. His close friend, Phil Keegan, is captain of detectives in the Fox River police department, and together they solve mysteries. This partnership, much like that of Rabbi Small and police chief Hugh Lanigan in Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small series, allows the author to contrast the issues of mercy vs. justice and reason vs. faith. (In some of the later books, Keegan’s role is reduced and much of the police work is carried out by Keegan’s former partner, Lieutenant Cy Horvath.)

The stories are traditional mysteries, with multiple suspects, red herrings, and subtle clues. Her Death of Cold deals with the suspicious death of a wealthy widow who has left a generous gift to St. Hilary’s; Prodigal Father tells the story of a man who has left the priesthood but wishes to return to religious life as a monk in the Order of St. Athanasius, a monastery near Fox River; and Ash Wednesday describes the feud between two parishioners, one of whom takes revenge upon the other for supposedly causing a death in their family.

A few things set this series apart from most traditional mysteries: most notably, the perpetrator of the crime is not always brought to justice. As sometimes happens in the Rabbi Small series, the guilty person’s punishment is having to live with the knowledge of what a terrible thing he/she has done. A number of people in my book groups found this unsatisfying. McInerny’s use of Latin and classical references can make things difficult for readers with less knowledge than the author (and that’s most of us).  His feelings about Vatican II and the problems it has caused in the Catholic Church come across quite strongly too.

McInerny’s gentle humor pervades much of the books. The actions of the recurring characters of Tuttle, an inept lawyer, and Tetzel, a Pulitzer-seeking reporter – no first names were given for either man in the books that I read – are often hilarious.  And Dowling’s housekeeper, Marie Murkin, often lends a wry twist to the goings-on at St. Hilary’s. There are also puns: “fight friar with friar,” for example, and a major character named Agnes Lamb (!).

I haven’t seen the Father Dowling mysteries on TV, though I know that Tom Bosley, who plays the priest/detective in the series, looks nothing like the tall, slightly stooped Dowling of the books. I have to wonder if the humor and plotting of the McInerny novels were retained.

Advertisements

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964) – Harry Kemelman

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on April 1, 2018 by cshmurak

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late is a traditional mystery with an untraditional detective. The protagonist, Rabbi David Small, is a young, somewhat unkempt, scholar and rabbi, who is new to his congregation in Barnard’s Crossing, a coastal town in Massachusetts. (The author, Harry Kemelman, lived in Marblehead, Massachusetts, for over 50 years, and it’s clear that Barnard’s Crossing is based on Marblehead.)  Small’s training as a rabbi has focused on the logical analysis of the Talmud, the central text of Jewish law and theology. He is a man of thought rather than a man of action.

As many contemporary clerical sleuths do, the rabbi has a good friend on the local police force (think of Father Roger Dowling and Captain Phil Keegan, or Sidney Chambers, the vicar of Grantchester, and Inspector Geordie Keating). Here, the friend is Police Chief Hugh Lanigan. Small and Lanigan meet for the first time in this book, and they engage in numerous discussions of ethics and religion while discussing the facts of the case at hand. Both men also have wives, and occasionally, they even listen to their wives’ suggestions.

The investigation in this book involves the murder of Elspeth Bleech, a nanny in the employ of the Serafino family. A shy young woman from Nova Scotia, Elspeth had one close friend, who tells the police that Elspeth never went on dates; yet an autopsy reveals that Elspeth was several months pregnant. Because her body was found in the parking lot of the new synagogue, Rabbi Small comes under suspicion, and when her handbag is found in the rabbi’s car, things look even worse. But there are plenty of other suspects. Eventually it is the rabbi’s logic, along with Lanigan’s good sense and long experience in criminal matters, that leads to the solution to this complicated mystery. And the mystery is a good one: I confess I couldn’t guess whodunit. Yet, like the best of Golden Age mysteries, the vital clue was there in plain sight.

For some reason, I’d never read any of Kemelman’s “Rabbi” mysteries before this. Now that I’ve read the first one, I plan to continue through the series. I already have Saturday and Sunday on order (Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry and Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home).

Photo Finish (1980) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , on February 26, 2018 by cshmurak

I’m still making my way through unread books of Ngaio Marsh; Photo Finish, a book late in the Roderick Alleyn series, is not one of her best, I’m sad to say. As in many of her books, there is a theatrical background, though this time it’s a performance of a new opera that is the centerpiece of the plot. There is also a New Zealand setting, but aside from one Maori character, the book could have just as well been set in any country. Essentially, it’s a manor house mystery, with a group of people isolated in a large mansion on an island in the middle of a storm-racked lake. Of course, a murder occurs.

Superintendent Roderick Alleyn just happens to be there because his wife Troy has been commissioned to paint a portrait of the internationally celebrated opera star known as “La Sommita.” Loosely based on Maria Callas, Isabella Sommita is the mistress of millionaire Montague Reece, who has built the mansion for her. The diva has been stalked for years by a photographer known as “Strix,” and he may be on the island too. The debut of a new opera, written expressly for Sommita by an infatuated young musician, is the occasion for the gathering at the mansion.

Alleyn, of course, does what he can when the murder occurs, though he has no official standing as a police officer. Troy doesn’t do anything much except make a few sketches, and later, inexplicably, make a few beds. None of the other characters really comes to life in this book. Additionally, the fact that Mr. Reece’s male secretary is gay is constantly alluded to in the most unpleasant way.

Still, the story carries the reader along to its logical conclusion, and Marsh is scrupulously fair in providing clues. Photo Finish was a nice diversion while I was travelling, but it’s not a book that I’d recommend to someone who’s never read Marsh’s mysteries.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017) – Martin Edwards

Posted in 19th Century Mysteries, Agatha Christie, Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Margery Allingham on January 10, 2018 by cshmurak

 

I received this book as a Christmas gift and I’ve been having a wonderful time with it!

My first instinct — and this may be yours as well, since you are a reader of this blog — was to go through the Table of Contents, pencil in hand, and check off all the books I’d already read. Results: 30 out of 100.  Hmmm, not too bad, but so many more books to enjoy.  Next I turned to the chapter on Trent’s Last Case, my personal favorite of the early classics (see my review here). Good summary and analysis, no spoilers, and a brief bio of E.C. Bentley. Nice.

Then I began to read the book cover-to-cover. For each mystery, Edwards gave just enough detail for me to decide whether this was a mystery that I simply had to read, or whether it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I ended up with a long list of books, some of which I’ve been able to download at no cost from The Gutenberg Project or purchase very cheaply from iBooks.

The organization of the book must have been quite a challenge, but I like what Martin Edwards has done here. It starts off (mostly) chronologically with a section on “A New Era Dawns,” then “The Birth of the Golden Age.” Once Edwards arrives at the Golden Age, there are so many books to discuss that he groups them by theme: “The Great Detectives,” manor house mysteries, academic mysteries, ‘impossible’ crimes, inverted mysteries, humorous mysteries etc. American mysteries get their own chapter.

Have I finished this book? No, not yet. There’s too much to savor here. But I know I will, and I’m grateful to Mr. Edwards for his monumental work and all the fascinating books that I’m going to read because of his book.

[You can buy The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books here.]

Night at the Vulcan (1951) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh on August 27, 2017 by cshmurak

Back to the Golden Age with Ngaio Marsh! This is another of her mysteries with a theatrical background, (see my review of Light Thickens), and her long experience as a producer/director is evident here. For example:

“There is nothing that gives one so strong a sense of theatre from the inside as the sound of invisible players in action. The disembodied and remote voices, projected at an unseen mark, the uncanny quiet offstage, the smells and the feeling that the walls and the dust listen, the sense of a simmering expectancy; all these together make a corporate life so that the theatre itself seems to breathe and pulse and give out a warmth.” [I wondered if it should be ‘corporal’ rather than ‘corporate’. A typo?]

In this book, the theatre is the Vulcan, recently renamed and reopened because a murder took place there years earlier. [This may have been in an earlier book in the series that  I haven’t read or have forgotten.] We follow a cast of players through two dress rehearsals and into opening night, and it’s not entirely clear which of the company will be the victim. But finally one of them doesn’t make it to the final curtain, and the police are called in to determine whether the death was a suicide or a murder. As with many Golden Age mysteries, there are a limited number of suspects; as with many of Marsh’s books, the death occurs quite late in the book (page 140 in my edition) and Inspector Alleyn of Scotland Yard doesn’t appear till several pages after that (page 147).

We see the story unfold through the eyes of Martyn Tarne, a young actress.  Martyn is similar to Roberta Grey in Death of a Peer in that she has just arrived from New Zealand and sees London from that perspective, as Marsh herself must once have done. Indeed, one of the young Lampreys from Death of a Peer is actually a character in this book.

In good Golden Age form, Alleyn gets to assemble all the suspects and explain the case to them. I had narrowed down the suspects to two likely characters, one of whom I really didn’t want to be guilty, and was still surprised by the final answer. This was a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying mystery.

 

 

Peter Dickinson – A Tribute

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries on June 13, 2017 by cshmurak

I recently reread Peter Dickinson’s Some Deaths Before Dying (1999) – it may have been the fourth time I’ve read it – and was deeply impressed still again by the magnificent story-telling. Sure, there have been other books in which the detective is bedridden and must rely on the footwork and interview skills of others: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter come immediately to mind. But those two books center on police detectives who are professionally trained and experienced at solving mysteries. Dickinson’s protagonist is a 90 year old woman with ALS, paralyzed from the neck down and barely able to speak. Her determination to understand the events leading up to her husband’s death draws in two other women who are willing to help her in her quest. It’s an amazing book.

When I first retired from 40 years of teaching, I decided to start a mystery readers group at my local library, and fortunately my efforts were welcomed by the library. For our first meeting, I wanted to choose a book that would attract people who were already mystery lovers and perhaps some other readers who were not familiar with classic mysteries. I chose Dickinson’s The Yellow Room Conspiracy (1994). The title harks back to two classics: The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) by Gaston Leroux and The Yellow Room (1945) by Mary Roberts Rinehart. The story itself is set in England in the period between world wars and thus reflects the time of The Golden Age mysteries. And it’s a compelling story of love and loss. We had a stimulating discussion, and the mystery group continues to this day.

Peter Dickinson (1927-2015) died not long ago on his 88th birthday. Unfortunately Some Deaths Before Dying was his last mystery (though he continued writing prize-winning children’s books for many years afterwards). He simply could not write mysteries fast enough to meet his publisher’s demands and so he gave up on them. But what a legacy he has left behind! His very first mystery, The Glass-Sided Ant’s Nest (1968)also published as Skin Deep –   won the Golden Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association and was a finalist for the Edgar Award in the United States. His second book, The Old English Peep Show (1969) did the same; Dickinson was the first author to win two Gold Daggers in a row.

His books are never formulaic, even those in his Jimmy Pibble series. The Glass-Sided Ant’s Nest is about murder among a New Guinea tribe that is housed in London; The Old English Peep Show is a country manor mystery, but the killers appear to be a pride of lions. Two of his mysteries create an alternate history of the British royal family: King and Joker (1976) and Skeleton-in-Waiting (1989). In these books, the eldest son of King Edward VII did not die in 1892 but instead went on to rule as King Victor II, and Buckingham palace is the scene of the crimes. Among my other favorites of Dickinson’s books are The Last House Party (1982), again set in the period between wars, and Hindsight (1983) with its World War II backstory of the relocation of London’s children to the countryside.

For many, many hours of fascinating reading, Peter Dickinson, I salute you!

Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) – Tony Hillerman

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries, Tony Hillerman with tags , , , on March 6, 2017 by cshmurak

hillerman
This is the second book in Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series set in the Four Corners area of Arizona/New Mexico. The series almost didn’t happen: Hillerman’s agent, on reading the first book, The Blessing Way, suggested that he cut Joe Leaphorn and “all that Indian stuff.” Fortunately Hillerman persisted, and an editor at Harper & Row suggested that Leaphorn’s role be enlarged. A few books later, Jim Chee was created. (Hillerman had briefly lost the rights to Leaphorn and so had to invent a new Navajo detective; when he regained those rights, Leaphorn and Chee became a team.)

Dance Hall for the Dead won an Edgar award for Best Novel and was well-deserving of the honor. As a traditional mystery, it has all the requisite elements: several murders, a cruel and devious murderer, clues, red herrings, and a distinctive detective. But it has so much more: Joe Leaphorn is a man who lives in two worlds, a protagonist with the knowledge of the modern police detective and the skills of a traditional Navajo tracker. Like some of the Native American sleuths who have followed him (I’m thinking particularly of Jane Whitefield, Thomas Perry’s Seneca ‘guide’), Leaphorn has the ability to remain still for hours, while keenly observant of his surroundings.

In addition to the hunt for the murderer, there is a search for a missing Navajo boy in the high desert, where winter is fast approaching; thus the setting becomes, as is true in most of Hillerman’s books, an important element of the book. And the reader will, of course, learn much about both Navajo and Zuni cultures, as well as some fascinating archeological information (about Folsom man).

I had read a few of the later Hillerman best-sellers, like Thief of Time (1988) and Coyote Waits (1990), but it was interesting to go back to a much earlier book in this series. Joe Leaphorn was a marvelous addition to the world of detective fiction.