Archive for the Mysteries Category

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.

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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.

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.

A Sleeping Life (1978) – Ruth Rendell

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries, Ruth Rendell with tags , on December 27, 2016 by cshmurak

sleeping-lifeUnlike many fictional detectives, who are often eccentric loners,  Reginald Wexford is a family man: happily married, with an adoring wife and two grown daughters. In A Sleeping Life, one of his daughters is unhappy in her marriage, and his attempt to understand her situation makes him wonder about his own.

Set in 1978, A Sleeping Life brings the reader into a time when women were questioning much about their lives. Like Parker’s Finding Rachel Wallace (reviewed here), it gives us a glimpse of the feminist movement of the time.  Rendell was called “the biggest anti-feminist there is” by Ms. Magazine  for her portrayal of a radical women’s group in An Unkindness of Ravens (1985), but here, she seems sympathetic to the plight of both Wexford’s daughter Sylvia and that of the murder victim, Rhoda Confrey.

Rhoda Confrey, a middle-aged, unattractive woman, is someone whom society might well have assigned the role of caregiver to her elderly father. But by suddenly coming into money, she escapes that fate and goes off to live her own life in London. What then leads to her death by stabbing in her hometown? And what exactly was her life like in London?

Wexford and his longtime friend and assistant, Michael Burden, go up several blind alleys in their attempt to solve the mystery of Rhoda’s life and death. Rendell provides many clues, cleverly distracting the reader from their significance.  A finalist for the Edgar Award (at a time when very few women were nominated for Edgars), A Sleeping Life is one of my favorites of Baroness Rendell’s Wexford books.

 

The Way Through the Woods (1992) – Colin Dexter

Posted in Colin Dexter, Mysteries with tags , on November 15, 2016 by cshmurak

waythruwoodsThis is the tenth Inspector Morse mystery and one of the best. (It was awarded the Gold Dagger by the British Crime Writers Association.) When Morse and Lewis investigate the case of a Swedish student who went missing a year earlier, the twists and turns abound.

There are two British authors whose use of unusual words always leads me to compile a list to investigate after I’ve finished the book: Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter. Dexter was a crossword constructor for years, so his love of language comes as no surprise. I don’t mind; it’s fun to discover meanings of words like “boustrophedon,” and one can usually get the gist from the context and look the definitions up later.

Dexter’s style in this book is more complex than usual: he uses diary entries, newspaper articles, letters and even religious confessions, as well as narrative, to tell the story. There are multiple points of view as well, but all these elements are blended into a book that pulls the reader steadily along to its surprising conclusion.

I’ve read this book at least four times and there are still things that give me pause. It’s clear to me that some of the events are left deliberately ambiguous (e.g., who is the woman who rings Morse’s doorbell at the end?).

I’m always surprised when people who say they are fans of the Inspector Morse TV series (and Inspector Lewis and Endeavor) confess that they have never read Colin Dexter. If you are one of them, it’s time to start!