Father Roger Dowling
(creator: Ralph McInerny)

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Ralph McInerny

Prodigal Father (2002)
Prodigal Father sees Father Dowling off on a week-long retreat at Maryville in Indiana in the quiet grounds of an old Catholic religious order, where he can meditate, reflect and pray. That at least was what he had hoped. In fact, his retreat leads him into involvement in a baffling murder investigation when a dead man is found in a grotto on the order's grounds with the handle of an axe protruding from his back.

Complicating matters is a long-running real-estate dispute that has pitted the brothers of the order against the would-be heir of the previous owners of the huge and valuable piece of land on which their sanctuary sits. Who could have killed the man and why? And does it have something to do with the rival parties vying for the land?

It makes an interesting story as Father Dowling is closely involved throughout, and it is set in a religious background that the author really understands. He writes convincingly about such characters as the ex-priest turned criminal, Richard Krause, who claims that he wants to return to the fold as Brother Nathaniel, and holy old Father Boniface the superior at Maryhill who now has only six other monks to look after, but who finds new inspiration in the course of the story.

More murders follow, but Father Dowling also has his usual work to carry out. When a Greek Orthodox young man wishes to marry a Roman Catholic girl, Dowling tells the young man, "Bring her to me, Michael. What you say of her, what her father says of her makes me want to meet her."
"She is an angel."
Dowling "was about to say that would be an impediment to marriage, but he sensed that on this matter, and perhaps all others, Michael had no sense of humor."

There is humor too when Tuttle, the seedy but nothing-if-not-persistent lawyer, finds his office and his life transformed by the incredibly efficient Hazel, whom he had hired as a secretary but now finds he can't get rid of. "His desk was cleaner, the books had been straightened on the shelves, every morning there was a typed agenda waiting for him on his desk. She even reminded him to get haircuts. Made the appointments." He hated it.

It is not absolutely clear why the attractive young Charlotte Priebe, the very ambitious and efficient "administrative assistant' of the unscrupulous property developer who wants to buy Maryville, gets to fall in love with the rather gormless young man whom she is meant to entrap, and the eventual disclosure of the murderer is not all that convincing, but it is still one of the better stories. Recommended.

Last Things (2003)
Last Things, like all the books, includes a
particularly full recap of the past history of all the main characters so that you can start reading the series at any point you choose. I really would not recommend anybody to do what I had to do and work my way through every single book one after another!

The story starts with the discovery of a man's body lying in the road. While the police track down who he is, Father Dowling is asked by a woman, who turns up out of the blue, if he will try to persuade her niece to give up the tell-all family novel that she is writing. This is how he gets to be involved with other members of her family who include a philandering patriarch, a son Raymond who left the priesthood to take up with an ex-nun, and another son, Andrew, who is an underachieving academic who has difficulty in getting anything published. " He taught creative writing but published only two stories", unlike his younger sister, 31-year-old Jessica, whose writing finds a ready market.
"You try too hard," she said to Andrew when she found an unfinished story of his.
"Writing should not come easily."
"It does for me."
This must surely be true of the author too, as he kept up such a steady stream of output!

It is Andrew who teaches at St Edmund's, one of those liberal arts colleges established by religious orders around the city of Chicago. There he shares an office with "a colleague who never seemed to bathe. This necessitated keeping the window cracked even in the dead of winter and having a small air cleaner beside his desk .... No student visited him twice, if so often." This (several times repeated) gibe about not bathing does not seem to have anything to do with the plot, and you are left wondering whether the author had some particular acquaintance in mind!

Another possibly autobiographical comment comes when two academic colleagues are discussing a third who is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths in order to secure tenure. "He infuriates the philosophers."
"Everything infuriates the philosophers."
"They don't understand a word he says."
"Neither do the students."
The author, of course, was a philosopher himself.

It all makes quite an interesting story, raising questions about the four last things: "Death, judgement, heaven, hell", as the old man, Fulvio, stricken by cancer, waits for death. Indeed the title Last Things is used both by the author of this book and by young Jessica for her novel. Fulvio "had stopped taking his medicine, regularly renewing the prescription but flushing the daily dose down the toilet. The medicine did not cure anything. There was no cure." He imagined "the cancer consuming him. What the hell did he care? What did his children care? ... What else is being old but practicing to be dead?" Father Dowling visits him in hospital but there is little he can do for him. As the hospital chaplain explains, patients often refuse to see a priest.
"It happens all the time."
"What do you do?" asked Father Dowling.
"Pray that they come around. Some do. You have to realise that they are usually drugged or in pain, either way not the best circumstances to think clearly. People are what they are by the time they come here. Deathbed conversions you can count on one hand."

Neither this old atheist nor the kindly old Father Bourke, the early inspiration of ex-monk Raymond, are to survive. When supposedly non-believing Raymond hears of Father Bourke's death, he "lowered himself onto the kneeler and not thinking of what he was doing prayed for the repose of the soul of Father Bourke. The words came easily nor did his words fly up and his thoughts remain below. He lifted his mind and heart to God, who had been there all along, and asked pardon and peace for the old priest. And for himself. Without drama he thought, I have come home." It all sounds just a little too good to be true.

As usual, there is a murderer to be caught by Father Dowling and this is achieved more by his ability to get people to talk to him than by any particular skill in deduction. But the underlying issues of the fragility of life and the imminence of death give it all more gravitas than is usual. There are two references too to Hopkins' celebrated poem about the girl Margaret apparently grieving over the loss of the autumn leaves: "It is the fate man is born for, it is Margaret you mourn for." Altogether, one of the better books.

Requiem for a Realtor (2004)
Requiem for a Realtor tells how Father Dowling gets involved with the troubled marriage of one of his parishioners. But then one of the couple involved is viciously killed in a hit-and-run car accident. Is it murder? Dowling knows there is good reason to suspect so, but when his friend chief detective Phil Keegan labels it an accident, Dowling's hands are tied, as he cannot reveal the secrets of his parishioners. But eventually he finds a way to arrive at the truth.

Sleazy lawyer Tuttle and his best (and only) friend, the not-too-bright policeman Peanuts Pianone, continue to ride around in Peanut's squad car, and go off to gorge Chinese food together while Tuttle plans for greater things, but it all sounds too familiar. Tuttle's aggressive secretary Hazel, whom he fired in the previous book, has strangely returned to work but unfortunately without most of her previous fire and thunder. And Earl, the husband of Edna Hospers who ran the senior centre at the church, has been set free from prison, where he had languished throughout all the previous books, but we are told hardly anything about his release.

Both of these last two events might have been more interesting than the machinations of the rather tiresome characters in the plot, although the dentist Dr. David Jameson, who plasters the walls of his waiting room with photographs of himself, and who is a supposed pillar of the Church, and is accused of having an affair with someone else's wife, is not without a certain horrible fascination.

Dowling's teasing of his housekeeper Marie gets distinctly monotonous. He realises that "he had to curb his teasing of Marie. She was a good woman", but he goes on being sarcastic and quite unpleasant at her expense. Many of the other characters in the story are also distinctly tedious, and as much of the book is about them rather than Dowling, it does not make a very engrossing story.

Blood Ties (2005)
Blood Ties tells how Henry Dolan's granddaughter, Martha Lynch, adopted 23 years earlier by Henry's daughter and son-in-law, has decided she wants to find her birth parents. Her adopted parents are frantic over the idea of losing her, so Henry seeks out Father Dowling's help. Meanwhile Martha's birth father, novelist Nathaniel Fleck, has contacted Martha's real mother, Madeline Lorenzo, for details about Martha.

Madeline does not want to intrude upon the young woman's life, nor does she want to upset her own. But Nathaniel won't leave her alone, and so she turns in her panic to Amos Cadbury, the old lawyer who is one of Father Dowling's best friends, for advice. When Nathaniel is murdered two days later, Dowling and Cadbury try to find the truth behind the murder.

The new characters are not really very interesting and it is difficult to feel involved in the story. Old friends, like Dowling and Tuttle, behave very much as you would expect them to, so the mixture is much as before. Even the joke where one character says "He will be missed", referring to a hit-and-run accident, and the other replies "He wasn't missed on Fox River Street," has been used more than once before. And all the old stuff about Tuttle and his care for his father reappears yet again. The only new element seems to be a crack about "Andy Greeley and the ageing crowd of classical rebels". Greeley, of course, was a competing over-prolific author - and, it must be admitted, often a more interesting one.

The Prudence of the Flesh (2006)
The Prudence of the Flesh is the story of how Gregory Barrett, a classmate of Father Dowling's, who had left the priesthood 25 years before, is threatened by a woman who alleges that he sexually exploited her when he was still a priest and she was 16. Barratt has no memory of her, but is devastated at what these claims will do to his career as a radio host and to his new family. So he comes to Father Dowling for advice. Then a body washes up on the shore of Lake Michigan
and Barrett becomes the primary suspect in the murder.

The murder victim is Ned Bunting, an unsuccessful author with whose lack of success the author seems to show some sympathy. Ned had "listened to two authors who had known success in a tenth of the time Ned had devoted to failure. Persistence. Keep at it. Their advice came down to that. And Ned could have wept." As a professional critic had told him, "Maybe some day you could learn what the hell a story is." And there is a contrasting mention of another author, Harry Austin, who "just pours out fiction, all pretty much alike, all pretty bad. But people like it." This couldn't possibly be the author referring to himself, could it?

McInerny's own plots are not his strongest point, the ineptitude of the police in accepting false evidence in this story being beyond belief. But it is not the strength/likelihood of the stories that gives the Father Dowling books what appeal they have, but rather the glimpses they give us into the clerical and police backgrounds of the leading protagonists. Indeed the storytelling often gets held up by re-caps of the main characters' past histories told in quite unnecessary detail, as when the dislike felt between Tuttle's secretary Hazel and his old best friend, Peanuts, is described yet again in tedious detail.

It all gets very repetitive, although, oddly enough, some incidents such as when Tuttle threw Hazel out of his office in a previous book, seem entirely forgotten. Certainly by now "he had already surrendered his office to the woman, allowing her to nag him into a subsidiary position." How the incompetent Tuttle with his "absurd tweed hat", who "had practiced law in several senses of the term, never getting very good at it", manages to attract quite so many clients in book after book defies belief.

Right at the start we were told that "Father Dowling doubted that anyone other than Andrew Greeley would dare open himself to comparison with G.K. Chesterton." Yet in a quote on on the back cover of this book Father Dowling is claimed to be "the Catholic equivalent of Harry Kemelman's David Small". In fact, neither claim is justifiable. As far as the Father Dowling books are concerned, there is altogether too much repetition, and neither deep religious issues nor the local community are treated with the depth of understanding that makes the Rabbi Small books so outstanding.

Although this particular book is concerned with a very real issue, the abuse practised by Catholic priests, it never really faces up to the problem as there is never any doubt about this particular priest's innocence, even if Father Dowling's "horror was not diminished by realising how small a number of such priests was compared to the priesthood as a whole." But, even so, this background gives the story some interest.

The Widow's Mate (2007)
The Widow's Mate is concerned with the strange disappearance, followed by the equally strange reappearance, of Wallace Flanagan, the heir to a lucrative concrete business, who had skipped town with his mistress more than ten years before and whose mangled body had eventually been found wedged into one of his father's cement mixers.

It all seems very much the same as in previous books, with the usual cast of Father Dowling; housekeeper Marie; Keegan, Horvath, Lamb, and Peanuts of the local police; Amos Cadbury, the ever-gentlemanly old lawyer; and Tuttle the ever-sleazy lawyer with Hazel, his ever-bossy secretary, all of whom seem to behave in a thoroughly predictable way. And once again, we get all their past history, however irrelevant this may be to the present plot.

When Flanagan's wife, Melissa, hired someone to look for her missing husband she picked, of course, "a man named Tuttle". And the almost-retarded policeman Peanuts still drives his friend Tuttle around town at high speed in his patrol car with the siren blaring. And Tuttle still keeps remembering his dead father who had paid for his son's slow and desperate progression through law school. It all seems far too familiar, and, unfortunately, most of the new characters introduced in this story, are not particularly interesting.

The real puzzle about these books, though, is why they continue to appear. Presumably Father Dowling, who is still quite an engaging character, must still have his fans, however tedious some of the plots have become. While superfluous copies of previous titles in the series are being sold off by public libraries, the author continues to roll them out year after year. He must have been 78 when this one, the 28th in the series (if you include the ones for young adults) appeared.

Ash Wednesday (2008)
In Ash Wednesday, Father Dowling learns from his inquisitively well-informed housekeeper, Marie Murkin, that a stranger who has come to town, one Nathaniel Green, is actually a well-known murderer. Ten years previously, his wife had been dying of cancer and after a short remission had collapsed into a coma, but when the nurses came to check on her condition, they found that Nathaniel had taken her off her life support. But as Dowling reinvestigates the case, and a real death and an almost-death occur, he starts to wonder if Nathaniel Green had really committed any crime at all.

As usual, Dowling seems happily undisturbed by all the mayhem and murder that always seems to surround him. "God knows he had few aggravations in his pastoral work. Other pastors had to contend with the uprising of lay people, women lectors who altered the Scriptures as they read, male clerical wannabes hovering about the pastor, a platoon of aids called ministers." But Father Dowling "was in charge at St Hilary's as others long to be in charge of their own parishes."

This story, like most of the others, gets off to an interesting start with the close involvement of Father Dowling and his supporting cast, including Marie Murkin, who, despite his disapproval, is always more than ready to help out with his pastoral work. "Do you ever think of your soul, Eugene?" she asks one old man.
"I don't think I have one."
"Of course you do. An immortal soul. Eugene, we are no longer young. We have to be more serious about what it all means."
"What does it all mean?"
"Father Dowling could explain that better than I could."

There is an interesting description of a very old retired priest rejoicing in the nickname of Willy Nilly, to whom Dowling goes for advice (could he be based on a real person?), and Amos Cadbury, the distinguished stately old lawyer, now aged 78 ( about the same age as the author must have been), is treated with all his accustomed affection and respect, and one even wonders if the author sometimes sees himself in that role. But characters, other than the police and clergy, are less convincing and the plot lacks excitement, so there is not a great deal here to interest the reader beyond a chance to renew acquaintanceship with the well-known characters from the previous books.

Stained Glass (2009)
Stained Glass sees Father Dowling's Church, St Hilary's, on a list of possible closures. Father Dowling tries to drum up support from church officials and parishioners, including the Deveres, who don't want to see the stained-glass windows they donated go anywhere other than the church they were meant for. Then a killer appears on the scene. A pity, really, as this means that the story of the fight against closure gets rather neglected and does not build up to the hoped-for climax.

Even Father Dowling himself has less time devoted to him than characters like the lawyer, Mr Tuttle, previously treated as no more than a comic character - but now no longer so amusing. But what we see of Father Dowling still rings true: "As pastor, he was the creature of the cardinal, bound by the promise of obedience he had made at ordination..... For years, the parish, this church, had seemed the permanent setting of his priestly life, but he had no permanent claim to it. Quite apart from the fate of the church, he could be reassigned by the cardinal at any time - but beassigned where? Would he be given a new parish at his age? Perhaps he would be asked to take a chaplaincy, at the hospital, in the convent, at a retirement home. He brought his hands to his face and prayed for the grace of obedience. Of course, he need not like what he was asked to do. When he had been assigned to St Hilary's, he had had no premonition of how satisfying he would find the assignment. Over time, in his own mind, a seemingly unbreakable bond formed between himself and St Hilary's parish in Fox River, Illinois." But "How ridiculous it was to elevate his problem into such importance. Think of the difficulties others faced, sickness, family problems, worse. Think of priests in many countries of the world, as much at risk as the earliest Christians. He remembered a story of what an African bishop at one of the synods in Rome had said when Americans were fussing about altar girls, women's ordination, inclusive language in the literature: 'In my diocese, the problem is to keep girl babies alive.' ''

However, the story, although interesting in parts, ambles on with no real sense of excitement, and it is difficult to feel very involved with either the murder victims or the police's attempt to track down the murderer. But the old lawyer, Amos Cadbury, still has some life in him, as when his niece Susan, much caught up in the field of social action, tells him how much she admires St Francis: "What a man! When I think of him just getting rid of everything, living in rags, trusting in God, talking to birds ..." She ran out of breath. Once more eyes sparkled with youthful enthusiasm.
"Are you thinking of becoming a Franciscan?"
"A nun?"
"I don't think you're eligible to become a brother."
"I wonder if St Francis would join the Franciscans if he were alive today."
"Our Lord might have similar misgivings about Christianity, Susan."
"I'm sure he would. Not that I'm much of a Catholic."
"None of us is all he should be."

And there are what sound like heartfelt passages about the way that unscrupulous publishers can swindle new authors out of royalties. You cannot help wondering if the author had ever experienced anything like this himself.

The final denouement relies on that old cliche: the existence of identical twins. It seems a pity that after such a long series, this last book could not have led up to a more satisfying climax. As it is the series ends with less of a bang than a whimper.


There is much information about McInerny and his distinguished career on the University of Notre Dame site, and a full list (with publication dates) of his crime novels on the Fantastic fiction site.




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Her Death of Cold cover
The stories are of very variable quality. This first book in the series was not the most interesting.
Getting Away With Murder cover
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.
The Case of the Constant Caller cover
This was one of two Father Dowling books that were written specifically for young adults - starting with the author's grandchildren.
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