Father (then Bishop, then Archbishop) Blackie Ryan
(creator: Andrew M Greeley)

Andrew Greeley
The Reverend Monsignor John Blackwood Ryan S.T.L., Ph.D. is more often known as Father (or later Bishop, then Archbishop ) Blackie Ryan, and keeps telling people to "Call me Blackie" (an echo of "Call me Ishmael" at the start of Moby Dick). His nephews and nieces are encouraged to call him Uncle Punk or Uncle Blackie. In the first book of the Blackie Ryan series reviewed here, he is aged just past 40, and is Rector of Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, where "I administer, badly, I admit, a large and variegated parish". He had been born in 1945 and ordained priest in 1970. He had been created Domestic Prelate (Monsignor) in 1983. He is the author of such unlikely books as Truth in William James: An Irishman's Best Guess (1985) and James Joyce Catholic Theologian (1992). He regards himself as both priest and philosopher.

He claims to be "the most innocuous and least romantic of men. You could enter an elevator I was riding and not even notice I was there. Indeed I am often the little man who wasn't there. Occasionally I even manage to be not there again today." All this Irish whimsy is quite amusing. He even has a special "West of Ireland sigh" used "even though there was no-one to hear it. Except the Lord God, who was by now immune to it". But, behind this outer appearance, there is a much tougher character, "a really scary man", who can fight off opponents if he has to.

He is much helped by his cousin, Mike Casey (described variously as a retired deputy superintendent/superintendent/commissioner of police) who is now an artist but still runs his own private investigator business. Casey's wife, Blackie knew, found "my bumbling near-sighted incompetence cute". She "immoderately enjoys being mildly flirtatious with her pastor. Not that I mind, heaven knows". He is always quick to compliment people, like the young person at the switchboard who has a new hairdo. " My staff is astonished that I unfailingly notice such changes and comment on them. Most men, they observe, not to say most clergy, are totally oblivious. I notice because of my socialization by my mother and my sister Mary Kate. Hell would occur instantly if one failed to notice". He gets on well too with children and dogs.

As a boy, he had been "short, clumsy, unathletic and - to put the best possible face on the matter - quaint". He is now "short and rather dumpy. Unhandsome, with thin grizzled hair, a high forehead, and near-sighted blue eyes blinking behind thick, rimless glasses, meek-voiced, and mild-mannered". He's a "cherubic little man with .... a 'Father Brown' manner that is not altogether accidental". He has been known to call himself "The poor man's Father Brown".

Some people "say that Mike Casey the Cop (ex-cop actually) is Blackie Ryan's Dr Watson. My niece Caitlin, who has read the Father Brown stories, claims that he is my Flambeau. His gorgeous wife may be closer to the mark. She claims that I am his Tonto". However this may be, the only crimes he claims to be able to solve are "locked-room mysteries". He explains, "I do not reason to my solutions like M.Poirot or Mr. Holmes. I see them like that other detective Father Brown in a moment of illumination."

He confesses to a weakness for Baileys Irish Cream and Bushmill's Green Label single malt whisky. He's also fond of hearty food, such as "waffles, pancakes and bacon .... I don't put on weight and my genes guarantee that I will have no chloresterol problem. And besides, I'm always hungry". When offered a salad, he declined on the grounds that he was not a rabbit.

He keeps his parlor in "an atmosphere of musty confusion - piles of papers, books, and dust on every available surface - as to persuade a visitor that I am not a character from G.K.Chesterton so much as from Charles Dickens. A sort of priestly Bob Cratchit, perhaps, working for Ebebezer Cardinal Scrooge - a metaphor that does not amuse my lord Cronin (his Cardinal Archbishop). Blackie has a nice sense of humor, recognising that he is a "funny little man" and not taking himself too seriously. But his cardinal archbishop describes him as having "one of the finest minds in the Catholic church. "He's almost always right," he says. "Seldom in error and never in doubt".

Is Blackie the author's alter ego? Greeley says that although Blackie sometimes speaks in his voice, he looks different, has different qualifications, and gets on much better with the church authorities! In the author's eyes, he represents the priesthood at its best - even if, as Blackie himself admits, there are "two indispensable qualities which I possess in super-abundance - cynicism and skepticism."

Throughout Blackie often refers to God as She or Her. This doesn't stop him getting ordained as a Bishop in 1990. As the author points out, "Imaging God as both Man and Woman is a theme throughout the Catholic tradition".

The Rev Dr Andrew M(oran) Greeley (1928 - 2013) was an Irish-American liberally-minded Roman Catholic priest (ordained in 1954), who had trained as a sociologist and taught at the University of Chicago, became a very well known author and journalist, and earned many awards. He is the author of over 50 best-selling novels and more than 100 works of non-fiction, including two volumes of autobiography, and his writing has been translated into 12 languages.

A retired Professor of Sociology at the University of Arizona and a Research Associate with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, he described himself on his own website as "one of America's most popular and trusted storytellers" and a "respected scholar whose current research focuses on the Sociology of Religion". He also had a special interest in the celibacy of priests, the ordination of women, and the sexual behavior of Catholics. His views sometimes aroused vitriolic responses from other Catholics who accused him of producing near-pornographic novels, and resented the way he was often approached by the media to represent Catholic views. He has even been described as "an ageing hippy". But he claimed that his use of sexual metaphor is a powerful and efficacious way of telling stories about God, and that all his novels are about God's love.

In 1986, he established a $1 million Catholic Inner-City School Fund, providing scholarships and financial support to schools in the Chicago Archdiocese. In 1984, he contributed a $1 million endowment, establishing a chair in Roman Catholic Studies at the University of Chicago.

In November 2008, he fell when getting out of a cab and suffered traumatic brain injury, after which he had to receive intensive therapy at home.

There are 17 books in the Father Blackie Ryan series, athough a younger Blackie also appeared in other books, not reviewed here, including Virgin and Martyr (1985), Angels of September (1986), Rite of Spring (1987) and St Valentine's Night (1989).

Happy are the Meek (1985)
Happy are the Meek sees Father Blackie Ryan invited to investigate the
murder of the singularly unpleasant Wolfe Tone Quinlan, who had recently joined a devil-worshipping cult and was, his family were sure, about to leave his entire fortune to its mad leader, Father Armande de St Cyr, Messenger of Light and High Priest of Lucifer. Quinlan's body had been found in the locked study of his 1920 imitation Swiss chalet home on the shore of Lake Michigan "with a mediaeval broadsword sticking out of his stomach".

Blackie explains "how I normally work. The various involved susp - uh, people come to my office or my parlor and tell me their stories, I piece together what they say and what I hear them saying between the lines and flesh out their story .... adding some description of my own to their perhaps overly restrained account. Sometimes I speculate on paper as to what might have happened in parts of the story that none of the witnesses have told me - in italicised sections with which my sister Nancy Ryan O'Connor, the SF writer (who deplores my poverty of imagination) collaborates. Then I draw a conclusion. Perhaps. When necessary to tie up a story, I may reconstruct, in italicized scenes, events that unfold in the course of the investigation to which I was not actually privy." And this is what he does. But as the suspects are not always all that interesting in themselves (even though most of them have strong motives for disliking the abominable Quinlan), it turns out to be a slightly tedious way of unfolding the story.

The suspects seem to have little reticence in describing their sexual lives, or anything else, to Blackie, and it all leads up to a dramatic (indeed melodramatic) climax in which, while Blackie sits happily interviewing suspects, two more of them are actually being threatened witrh violent death by the mad Father Armande. Eventually Blackie gets round to finding the videotape in which Quinlan explains if not all, at least enough to explain what was going on. It's very odd that he'd not searched for it earlier. But Blackie is, at the end, able to come up with a surprising conclusion.

The best thing in the book is Father Blackie himself, and it will be interesting to see how he develops in the (numerous) books that follow.

Happy Are the Clean of Heart (1987)
Happy Are the Clean of Heart begins with the engaging explanation that "Monsignor John Blackwood Ryan, Ph.D., is far too wise and far too gentle to be like any existing rector of Holy Name Cathedral. Sean Cronin is far too courageous and ouspoken to be like any known archbishop of Chicago".

There is then, as in all the Happy ... books, a brief explanation of The Beatitudes. "Cleanliness or purity of heart," Greeley explains, "does not mean, despite the sermons we all may have heard in our various churches in ages past, immunity to erotic images or longings .... Life without erotic longings might be easier, but it would certainly be much more dull." Instead it means "integrity of motivation, clear-headedness about the reasons for our behaviour .... and, especially, resolute refusal to succomb to the insidious, demoralizing and pervasive vice of envy".

Envy is the central theme of the story. Lisa Malone, Blackie's old teenage sweetheart, has become a star actress, adored by millions but envied, and often actively disliked, by those immediately around her. She is brutally attacked, and Blackie sets about interviewing likely suspects, including her aggrieved husband, her surgeon brother who believed "it would have been much better if she had never been born", a mob-connected charity consultant, two con-artist actors with failing careers, her envious biographer, her lovesick agent, and an angry radical nun. It is the nun who accuses Blackie, "If you males, who dominate the Church, drank less and worked more, the Church would not be in the shambles that it is". And Blackie adds the comment, "An undebatable point, to give the devil her due".

Blackie admits, "As befits a priest, I have been in love with many women (never violating my celibate commitment in the process, by the way), but I have loved only two of them," and one of these was Lisa, so he is very much emotionally involved in the investigation, particularly as Lisa has suffered "thirty-eight cigarette burns, multiple internal injuries, two hairline fractures of the skull, and brain hemorrhages caused by a very severe contusion". She is now lying in a coma, close to death.

Our view of Lisa is constantly changing as we read all the very different accounts of her, ranging from quite an explicit account of how she seduced "George the Bean Counter", the man she married, to her achievements as an actress: "The secret in this business, beloved mine, is sincerity." she told her husband. "Once you've learned to fake that, everything else is easy!"

Her great achievement is her final film that she not only starred in, but wrote and produced. Called The Friendship Factor it mightily impresses Blackie and his friend the Cardinal when they watched it together on video. It's "the story of a singer who came out of the slums of Chicago in the 1920s in search of wealth and love, found them, became an alcoholic, lost everything, rediscovered a forgotten love, and climbed out of the grave she had constructed for herself. Not an original story perhaps, but executed perfectly". Her nudity in the film was so treated that "she turned the erotic away from pornography and converted it into drama".

It makes quite an interesting story, and is a real step on from the first book in the series.

Happy are Those Who Thirst After Justice (1987)
Happy are Those Who Thirst After Justice is a locked-room mystery about the murder of a rich, domineering old grandmother, Violet Enright, aboard her luxury yacht during an annual family party. Her young granddaughter Fionna had imagined writing a story in which this happened, but, instead, she finds herself the chief suspect. The Ryan clan is involved, so Blackie has a personal interest in solving it all. And anyway he has been told by My Lord Bishop (who "is about ninety-five percent agnostic and five percent mystic, an appropriate blend for a bishop these days"), "I want it solved. See to it". It's a pity, though, that Blackie himself does not appear until page 78.

The most entertaining character in the story is old Violet who, greeting her guests, "worked her way down the line of her family, waiting patiently on the foredeck in the last rays of the setting sun. Unerringly she went to the jugular vein of each of them, reducing each to the condition of a child who has been punished by ridicule". To her daughter she says, "Where did you get that dreadful dress, Rita? It doesn't fit you at all, and you'll catch your death of cold if you don't put on a sweater. Anyway there aren't any men in our party who will ogle you this evening. Except maybe Carlos and Tomas." She gestured at her chauffeur and houseboy. "Would you like one of them in your bed tonight, dear? I'm sure they'd be happy to oblige even if I tell them you're not very good in bed."

Even if all this is way over the top, it's a pity she has to be shot so soon, as few of the other characters are as interesting. They include "a hippie ex-priest with a jewel-crazy wife, a discredited bishop, a bisexual surgeon whose wife was a nympho, a lonely and beaten woman, the feisty granddaughter with a threatened lover, a somewhat sinister banker, and a mysterious visitor from the County Galway", not to mention two married psychiatrists (one of whom is Blackie's sister) whose sexual behaviour (they have "a permanent adolescent sexual crush" on each other) is described in graphic (and not really very relevant) detail. The author explains elsewhere that such sexual descriptions are a metaphor for God's love for us, but why such an extended metaphor?

There are so many characters that the author had to include a cast list at the start. Even so, it all gets very confusing. It is not easy to identify with them , so you don't really care very much when two of them have their throats cut. As Blackie says in his funeral sermon, "There are no good ways to die .... There is nothing in our faith that enables us to pretty over either the tragedy or the senselessness of their deaths". We just have to believe that God "loves us and he will take care of us and wipe away all the tears and make us happy again and forever".Then Blackie's own sister Kate gets attacked. It's not one of the best books in the series.

Happy are the Merciful (1992)
Happy are the Merciful appeared five years after the previous book, and Blackie has suddenly emerged as an auxiliary bishop. At first there is no explanation of how this came about, then, towards the end of the book, Blackie cheekily explains how it all happened "by mistake .... The Cardinal, for reasons of his own which I suspect have to do with access to my liquor cabinet, wanted me as an auxiliary bishop. He knows that Rome does not give American bishops the men they want in this role, but rather men whom they don't want and who make life more difficult for them". So the Cardinal submitted three other names, excluding his. When the Papal Nuncio noticed that the "funny little priest" at the cathedral had not been included, he said (in his usual broken English which Blackie was good at imitating), "Hesa probably had a fight with the sillya little man. So we makea him a bishop, no?"

The story tells how how wealthy eccentric inventor John Turner, and his wife Mary, are found brutally murdered in a locked room, and how their adopted daughter Clare is, very surprisingly, found guilty of the crime. Her psychiatrist turns out to be Blackie's sister, Dr Mary Kathleen Murphy, so the Ryan clan soon get involved. More than half of the story is told by Terry Scanlon, the young prosecutor, who falls in love with Clare. Then Blackie Ryan takes over the narrative. This is a better arrangement than in the previous books where we have lots of narrators, but Blackie is really much more interesting then Terry Scanlan so it seems a pity he did not appear much earlier. Perhaps one day Greeley will get round to leaving all the narrative to him.

Blackie has quite an interesting time - there is even at attempt to kill him - and the story is full of ominous hints about nasty things about to happen, as when he tells the imprisoned Clare that, "In the words of Blessed Juliana of Norwich, all manner of things will be well. As time would demonstrate that was a presumptious and premature projection. Seldom have I been so wrong". Then a few pages later, he was sure that "nothing disastrous was likely to happen (to Clare) that night. I could not have been more wrong". However, Blackie, prompted by strange unexplained vibrations that "assailed me with almost overwhelming intensity", manages to find an old letter that explains who Clare really was.

An oddity of these stories is how the police seem represented by Blackie's cousin, Mike Casey. Although he is now an artist, and officially retired from his previous post as deputy police commissioner, he is still respectfully addressed by the police as "Commissioner". and "it can safely be assumed that when he is present, all police officers, no matter what rank, take their orders from him". How convenient for Blackie!

Happy are the Peace Makers (1993)
Happy are the Peace Makers sees Bishop Blackie Ryan in Dublin, investigating the case of rich, beautiful and seductive Nora MacDonaugh, suspected of the murder, one and a half years before, of her latest husband, an Irish millionaire who had changed his will in her favor just a week before a bomb went off in his study. As with all the books, there's a plan of the scene of the crime for anyone who takes the plot all that seriously. Then the story gets off to a good start with this arresting opening sentence: "I met the woman in the elevator of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin a few moments before the Provos sprayed us with automatic weapons".

"I" turns out to be ex-American cop, Tim MacCarthy, who has been engaged, as a private investigator, to find the evidence to prove her guilty. In fact, he finds her very attractive: "She was a very clever woman, no doubt about that. She knew how to use her seeming fragility and her erotic appeal most effectively on a man." Bishop Blackie, who is in Dublin to research his forthcoming book on James Joyce, Catholic Theologian (!), explains to him how Joyce realised that "if the Word was made flesh, then the erotic is sacramental". So what McCarthy felt for Nora could be described as a sacrament, but "only if it were sufficiently passionate".

So perhaps it was all right when "one of my hands, operating on its own, found its way to her belly, on which my fingers drew aimless designs. The rate of her breathing increased and she closed her eyes and bit her lip as my unruly hand continued its explorations. Despite explicit instructions from me, it found its way to a breast. It crept insidiously under her swimsuit in search of a nipple. " You can't help wondering if there might be an element of wishful thinking on the celibate (?) author's part. In his autobiographies, he does not say anything at all about his own sexual feelings/experiences - but just refers anyone interested to his poems.

Although McCarthy himself is not a particularly interesting character, the story works quite well being seen through his eyes, even though, just like Blackie, he likes ending chapters with comments like: "I could not have been more wrong".

The Dublin background is very convincingly handled, as is McCarthy's meeting with Brendan, the Provo leader. There is all the charm of the Irish about him, but McCarthy recognises that "for all his charm and intelligence, Brendan was as crazy as the rest of them (the IRA). He had the idea that the organisation's cause, properly understood, would not seem like terrorism. But the Irish in the twenty-six counties of the south of Ireland understood the cause and yet ninety-nine out of a hundred voted against Brendan's party in free and open elections. They understood the cause, all right, and maybe half approved if it. They wanted no part of the violence." Greeley must be as delighted as everyone when, years later, the Provos eventually renounced violence, but it is good to see that he was prepared at this time to take such a a realistic and unsentimental look at them.

Blackie sees several possible explanation of the mystery, and is soon convinced that Nora is innocent. When the overly-aggressive Irish Chief Superintendent Clarke threatens that he'll soon get a confession out of her, he warns him, "If you do, you'll regret it till your dying day. And, sir, if I may say so, in the colorful vernacular of this city, you are a nine-fingered shite hawk!" And , as McCarthy realises, "this was the real Blackie Ryan, a truly scary man. No wonder he hid behind the mask of a bumbling latter-day Father Brown".

There's a lot of "colorful vernacular" in this book. As Greeley explains in his preface, "It is as much a part of Dublin as St Stephen's Cross and the Liffey river .... In reality it is much less restrained than in this story, and .... as Bishop Ryan argues, God doesn't mind because She knows that the Dubliners don't mean anything by it". So it's all right for Chief Superintendent Clarke to say, "Focking coincidences don't focking happen" and "Miss Yo-Yo Knickers (his name for Nora) lets a guy pork her for a while. Then when he has had enough good rides, he makes out a will in which she gets everything, and then bang, he's dead". McCarthy comments, "I marveled at the Irish fluency in obscenity. We were no match for them".

All this makes quite a strong story, with a convincing Irish background (complete with bombs) and plenty happening. And all the refences to Leopold Bloom/James Joyce add to the interest.

Happy are the Poor in Spirit (1994)
Happy are the Poor in Spirit tells the story of the Cain family which apparently has a ghost which is all set to murder the rich and famous Bert Cain. After three near-fatal attempts on his life, and three eerie phone calls from a woman who is supposed to be dead, the family gets desperate enough to call in an exorcist. What they get is Bishop Blackie Ryan who learns that the suspected ghost is that of Mary Anne Haggerty, who had disappeared 45 years ago after going to the senior prom with young Bert Cain.

In this book, Blackie, whose 47th birthday is approaching, is allowed (for the first time) to narrate the whole narrative himself. As he is the most interesting character, this ought to have worked very well, but oddly enough he seldom lets us know what he is really thinking, preferring to keep us wondering, so we don't really learn much about his inner thoughts. But we do learn that he is no admirer of Cardinal Ratzinger (of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith) and others "who believed that you could turn the ecclesiastical clock back to the nineteen-fifties, and an idealized nineteen-fifties at that". (However, when years later, Ratzinger was elected Pope, Greeley himself argued that he should be given a chance to prove himself.)

Bishop Blackie finds it hard to accept that a ghost could be involved although he points out that "there are phenomona of evil for which we humans have yet no adequate explanations. There is a malignancy in the cosmos beyond mere human evil which we cannot comprehend". Meanwhile he has to struggle with unhelpful suspects, including Mart's own son, Junior, and his pretentious wife. "I want to make it clear, Father, says Junior firmly, that we are here under protest. We don't believe there is anything to investigate, or that if there were, a priest is the appropriate person to do the investigation."
"Bishop," I said firmly.... "My proper title is Bishop .... Or less frequently, Your Excellency or Your Grace or, in the British Isles, Milord." They sat "in stunned silence". It's good to see Blackie standing up for himself.

The basic plot is not all that interesting, but there's one lively character who certainly holds the interest: Bert's young teenage daughter, Beth, nicknamed Candibeth by Blackie. She is nothing if not outspoken, as when she tells Blackie that she's worried that her injured father will no longer be able to make love to his wife. "I thought it would be like, you know, impossible. Then I figure she's fersure giving him head and she's probably pretty good at it, you know."
"Candibeth!"
"Well, I mean, if they're in love and they're married and they can't do it any other way, why not?"
'I did not tell her that the Vatican would probably disapprove because that wisdom was lost on her generation.
"I figure like someday, when I'm a lot older, I'll like go hey, Mom, can you tell me how you do some of those things, And she might look shocked, but she'll tell me. Maybe demonstrate with a bottle like Madonna in Truth or Dare. Fersure."
"It is unwise for me to speculate on those matters, Cindibeth."
I was on the verge of losing it to wild laughter utterly inappropriate for a bishop, In any event, Candibeth was living roof that ignorance is not required as a precondition for innocence.'

Towards the end of the book, Blackie reports back to Cardinal Archbishop Cronin who asks him, "By the way, Blackwood, what did happen to Mary Haggerty?"
"At the present time, I do not know."
"Don't you think you'd better find out?"
"Arguably." (That is Blackie's favorite expression.)
"Then see to it, Blackwood." (And that is the Cardinal's.)

Then, after some much-needed dramatic action involving the kidnapping of Bart's wife, and a ransom demand from the IRA for "two million of your Yankee dollars if you please", there is a shoot-out and the whole two million dollars get blown up. But, as the chief of the FBI pointed out, "Mr Cain didn't lose any real money. We gave them counterfeit money printed in Iran and confiscated in a secret shipment by our colleagues in the Secret Service .... From now on, terrorists will never be sure whether they're getting real American dollars or Iranian American dollars. That should substantially diminish their motivation for kidnapping."

Individual incidents like these are more interesting than the basic plot which seems rather prolonged with a host of characters with whom it is not always easy to identify.

Happy are Those Who Mourn (1995)
Happy are Those Who Mourn has Bishop Blackie Ryan visiting the apparently haunted wealthy parish of St Peter and St Paul, where lights flash on and off, bells ring at odd hours, and mysterious footsteps are heard at night.
He has been sent to investigate the murder of Charles "Jolly Cholly" McInerny, the parish's much disliked monsignor. (Was this choice of name an in-joke at the expense of fellow academic and crimewriter Ralph McInerny?).

The Cardinal Archbishop Cronin had been trying to get rid of the over-age monsignor for years and had not been at all pleased to find him apparently haunting his successor, young Father Peter Finnegan: "I will not tolerate that bastard coming back to haunt his parish," he had told Blackie. "He died in February and I want him to stay dead until the Final Judgment". Then he went on, "The dead do not return, Blackwood. You know that as well as I do. Leaving aside Himself, of course."

Blackie soon discovers that ten million dollars are missing from the parish bank accounts (well, we were told it was a wealthy parish). He goes on to meet the pompous bank president who refuses to discuss the missing funds, his sultry wife Lynn, who seems to have been the monsignor's lover, and the doctor who had pronounced Cholly dead of a stroke, though he had been clearly hit on the head.

Once again, it is Blackie who tells the story, but he still doesn't give away too much about his own inner thoughts and feelings. He does not really believe in ghosts but thinks it possible that "if a terrible crime were committed here, memories of the agony and horror would remain for a time, psychic imprints on the place, if you will."

Meanwhile he is very impressed by the glamorous Lynn ("a very dangerous woman indeed") and her daughter Evie who greets Blackie with, "I wanted to meet you and tell you how much I enjoyed your book on Joyce", with the result that "the unflappable Blackie Ryan was flapped, even flustered." But, looking at her, he can recognise who her father really was. Lynn, admitting that it was not her husband, admits to Blackie, "I've led a terrible life, Bishop. I am certain I will go to hell for all eternity".
"You can count on this: you certainly will not go to hell."
"How can you say that when you don't even know my sins?"
"Because everyone who knows you loves you. Why should God be any different?"
"That's a very peculiar kind of theology, Bishop," she said dubiously.
"Very orthodox, however."

There's then a dramatic flashback to the time of the Korean war to explain Evie's birth, and the story really comes to life at this point. It turns out that Lynn's real husband wanted a son but was incapable of sexual intercourse, and Blackie reflects, "Not for the first time in my years as a priest, did I marvel at the ease with which married women will entrust the most intimate details of their lives to a celibate priest". Lynn explained that she had asked the late monsignor for help, "and," she told Blackie, "he gave me permission to commit adultery". Even Blackie has a job to justify this.

Then there's a violent murder and Blackie himself feels threatened. At the funeral service, it seemed that the ghost "knocked over candlesticks, pounded the organ, rattled the windows, and stomped on the roof. It was as though he were trying to make more noise than the storm (on which, thank heaven, the disturbances would later be blamed)". When it appears in Blackie's bedroom, "all the lights in the tower went on, as did the television and my computer upstairs, and the microwave in the kitchen. The chimes rang out a Brahms Chorale. Solemn high cheap tricks .... 'Go away,' I said aloud. 'I need some sleep.' " But then there's another murder.

Blackie himself remains an interesting character, and often reflects what sound like the author's own views. There is comic mention of a book editor, for example, and Blackie says, "I shall pray for her conversion to a more virtuous profession". Then there's mention of an old alcoholic about whom Blackie comments, "At first his fellow clergy lamented the loss of a great talent (though if he had exercised the talent by writing they would have damned him)". Just like they criticised Greeley, perhaps?

Blackie has a keen sense of the ridiculous: "I vested in regalia I rarely don - cassock with purple buttons and a cape lined in purple and a purple cummerbund". He then added a zucchetto (skull cap) and a pectoral cross." I concluded that I looked utterly ridiculous, but no more so than most other bishops and indeed less so than many".

Greeley still has the slightly annoying habit of ending chapters with comments like, "That was as foolish and dangerous a conclusion that I had ever drawn", and he also also keeps repeating the old joke, "Is the pope a Catholic?". Even so, this remains one of the more enjoyable books.

Happy Are the Oppressed (1996)
Happy Are the Oppressed is all about the famous Cardin family in Chicago, heirs, we are told, to "an unmatched legacy of wealth, prestige and tragedy". It is Chantal Chardin, the lovely wife of Peter Paul Cardin V, who tells Bishop Blackie that "I am going to die .... I am going to be murdered before the end of the year". And she says she would like to make a general confession. Blackie is taken aback, partly because at the time they were sitting in the Grand Ballroom of the Drake Hotel, where her husband was guest of honor at the dinner. She subsequently tells him that it is her husband who has been sending her obscenely threatening letters. So the story, told by Blackie throughout, gets off to a good start. Blackie himself has now just passed his 50th birthday.

Sean Cardinal Cronin passes on to Blackie an article from an old issue of Chicago History that had been sent to him anonymously. It's all about the earlier history of the Chardin family and how in 1895 a Peter Cardin had been accused of murdering his wife. Then Blackie is given an archive of letters written to her younger sister back home by an Irish servant girl, who had worked in the Cardin house from 1892 to1897. These take up many pages and are in many ways the most interesting part of this book - more interesting really than all the machinations of the present-day Cardin family.

However, the Countess Cardin, Chantal's old battleaxe of a mother-in-law, is a formidable character, and it is entertaining to read how Blackie stands up to her. "I am going to write a letter to Cardinal Ratzinger about you," she warns him. "He is a good friend of ours." Then when one of Blackie's helpers, Megan, shows her out, she says, "I don't need a nigger to find my way to the door."
Blackie replies, "Should your good friend Cardinal Ratzinger actually write to me, I shall respond to him and describe your gratuitous racial slur. Countess, I urgently ask you to aplogize to Megan. If you fail to do so, I will ban your admission to this rectory permanently."
"I'll ban you," she shouted as she exited the rectory, mink coat still over her arm."

After Chantal is brutally attacked, Blackie gets round to realising who her attackers must be, although, as so often, he "had figured it out very late". And he still can't resist ending chapters with teasers like, "I could not have been more wrong". But, apart from the old letters from the Irish maid, and some excitement at the end, the story does not really live up to its initial promise.

The Bishop at Sea (UK title: Blackie at Sea) (1997)
The Bishop at Sea is a locked-room mystery with a difference, because the aircraft carrier Langley has over 3000 rooms (no-one seems to know the exact number) and a crew of 6000. So what has happened to a missing Commander and his two cronies - and is it his ghost that is haunting the ship? Then there are the problems of including women in the crew when no "fraternizing" is allowed. Margaret M Mahy may be the Langley's ace pilot, but why does her life seem in danger? Having to deal with all this, Bishop Blackie Ryan quite literally finds himself all at sea.

There are vivid descriptions of the hazards of landing on a carrier. Blackie had complained to Cardinal Sean Cronin that "a carrier landing is nothing more than a controlled crash", but Cronin had been keen for him to go because his own cousin was the carrier's captain and was obviously needing help - and Blackie, as so often, seemed just the person to provide it.

Once safely on board, Blackie discovers that the missing Commander had officiously made it his business to search out anyone drinking alcohol (the US navy, unlike the British, is alcohol free), smoking pot or "fraternizing" with members of the oposite sex. There was often insufficient evidence to get them found guilty, but he did not give up trying. Yet, as Captain Cronin tells Blackie, "If we're going to put young men and young women on a ship together for a sustained period, we need something better to respond to the energies we unleash than old-fashioned American Puritanism .... Moreover, while I'm being a rebel, I think we'd have less trouble with drugs if we were willing to follow the example of the Brits and dole out some grog every now and then".

There are interesting passages, not only about life on board, but on questions like the real need to have all these carriers. As the captain argues, "Almost two decades ago, our intelligence people came up with proof that the Russian navy was a farce, at most an incompetent, failure-prone crowd whose sole aim was defensive. We didn't really deny it. We ignored it and went right on building carriers and lying to Congress .... Even now, we could get by with six or eight carriers at most. I'd like to have ten, but if it's a choice of six with professional air crews, quality maintenance, and rigid safety requirements, that's what I'd choose."
"Just as the church should be content with fewer priests but better ones," replied Blackie.

Blackie, who again tells the story himself, comes to hate "this weird, science fiction city with its bright, artificial light, obscure trails, mysterious humming sounds, endless if slight swaying motions, ominous if obscure threats, and grim and unrelenting beige walls .... It's six thousand inhabitants dwelled there to make it possible for some eighty aircraft ... to rain destruction on enemies, should there be any such. It made improbable science fiction and even more chilling reality".

Naval Investigative Services' members arrive aboard to conduct their own enquiry. They are really bossy and incompetent, and it is a pleasure to read how Blackie, who had himself discovered two of the missing bodies, refuses to come at their beck and call but firmly stands up to them. "We find it odd," he was told by an "obnoxious little punk" of a lawyer "that you would come on this ship for a religious function and within twenty-four hours, discover two bodies".
"And I find it odd that NIS would not immediately have searched inactive aircraft (where the bodies had eventually been found)."
"You are not here to engage in criticizing navy personnel."
"As a modest taxpayer, I propose to exercise my right to criticize manifest incompetence whenever I choose."
"We could hold you as an accessory after the fact to those crimes for refusing to cooperate with us." First words out of the lieutenant commander. He obviously wasn't a lawyer.
"Not for any more than five minutes, and your young friend the lawyer here knows it, even if you don't."

Religious issues are never far away. "Do you Catholics pray?" Blackie is asked by a fiercely Protestant evangelical Chief Petty Officer.
"Yes, we do. A lot."
"I know you don't read the Bible ... Do you believe that God hears your prayers even though you're not saved?"
"We believe that God loves all of us humans like a parent loves a child, like a spouse loves the other spouse."
His eyes opened in surprise. "I don't think Christians believe that."

There is real excitement too, as when Megan's sabotaged plane fails to take off and plunges through the darkness into the Pacific. Blackie "warned the Holy Spirit that this was not an acceptable outcome. We needed this young woman ... I had bungled badly in not seeing that they would sabotage her plane. But I had embarked on this ship only a little more than a day ago. It was not my fault that I didn't see all the possibilities. The Spirit was demanding from me what was beyond all reason. Therefore it was Her responsibility to make up for my frailties".

Blacky, drugged with motion sickness medicine, reckons that he "is not functioning with a full deck of cards. By now, the reader has doubtless solved the whole mystery". Not this reader, anyway! But more dramatic action follows, with Blackie having to save the captain by lashing out with a golf club and breaking both the murderer's wrists. Bullets continue to fly, and in the end Blackie has to grab control of the public address sustem: "This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill. Mutiny under way, Sea marines, security, medical personnel to officers' quarters on oh - three level."

It all ends with toasts from a relieved Cardinal Cronin to Blackie ("the best mystery-solving auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese") , and "to two institutions of long history and great achievements that are trying to catch up with a changing world and particularly with the changing roles of women, the United States Navy and the Catholic Church. On the basis of my recent observations, the former is making more rapid progress than the latter. Both, I I presume, will survive and eventually flourish!"

So ends the best of the Blackie books so far. It successfully combines an exciting story, a realistic background and the raising of important issues, Recommended.



Reviews continue on NEXT PAGE

Happy Are the Meek cover
The first book in the series is not the best, but, as the series unfolds, Father Blackie becomes quite a character.
Bishop at sea cover
This is one of the most interesting books, but the publishers of the English edition did not do it it a favor by retitling it (see below). Blackie at Sea sounds rather like a children's book about a dog - and, for once, the English cover design (below) is much less informative than the American one above.
Blackie at Sea cover
Return to
CONTENTS LIST