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

Andrew Greeley
Reviews continued from previous page

The Bishop and the Three Kings (1998)
The Bishop and the Three Kings sees Father Blackie sent to Cologne, where a major church relic, the remains of the Three Kings, has been stolen from the cathedral. Encountering "a sinkhole of corruption" among the cathedral staff, and a sinister enemy, stolen-art collector Herr Zellner, Blackie needs the help of his cousin, young Peter Murphy, and the girl, Cindasue, who seems to work for some secret agency of the US government (but has some guilty secret in her past), and with whom Peter falls in love. Indeed there seems more emphasis on erotic scenes with her than on the main plot. And her breasts ("diminutive, shapely, graceful, challenging) seem to much preoccupy the author: "A rule of thumb for the uninitiate: no woman is ever satisfied with her own breasts. Never. The corollary is that no man is ever dissatisfied with the breasts of the woman he truly loves. Ever." It takes," Blackie says, "perhaps thirty years in the priesthood to understand" this.

The story is told by Blackie, Peter and, to a small extent, by Cindasue, who says she comes from Stinkin' Creek, and has the infuriating habit of speaking Appalachian mountain language even though, when occasion demands, she can speak perfect English. So she says things like, "You don't think, do you, Uncle Blackie, that nice cacky ole preacher man had anything to do with stealing it? I don't reckon he done did it." Even when she prays, she says, "If You be a-listn up there, You know what a mess I be .... Happ'n you care at all 'bout a no-count redneck like me, give me another chance".

When she tells Peter "Law, this hog-killin'est whirlpool in whole wide world" he was able to work out that "hog-killin'est" meant something like "the best". "Law" meant the Lord, whom she was praising for the whirlpool. "Part of the fun," he thought, "in this green-eyed imp was figuring out what she was talking about. Would it pall on me through the years? I very much doubted it." To the reader, though, the spectacle of this 25-year old woman constantly putting on this act gets distinctly tedious. Greeley himself explains that he is delighted by Cindasue's hill-talk and rejects any suggestion that he is ridiculing her. He believes such rich accents are part of "the rich cultural assets of our pluralistic republic". Maybe they are, but they don't make the book any easier to read. "You got no call to hornswoggle me; you're nothing but a sky-gogglin' side-hill slicker, a bodacious fuddle-britches". Indeed.

The German setting is not handled too convincingly and some of the characters, including the arch criminal Herr Zellner, are near caricatures. Even the count cardinal, the most sympathetic of the German characters, goes over the top when Blackie tells him that cathedral priests have been abusing choirboys: " 'Mein Gott!' he screamed, rising from his chair, a furious Viking prince, about to go berserk." And Blackie is reduced to saying arguably even more often than usual. Altogether a disappointing book.

The Bishop and the L Train (2000)
The Bishop and the L Train starts with the much disliked auxiliary Bishop Gus Quill (appropriately known as Idiot since his seminary days) disappearing, complete with the L Train on which he had been travelling. "With any good fortune we will find neither the L Train nor Bishop Quill," comments auxiliary Bishop Blackie Ryan. It turns out that Quill had been assigned to the Archdiocese of Chicago despite the protests of Blackie's boss, Sean Cardinal Cronin. Quill had been under the illusion (or delusion) that he had been sent from Rome to replace the good Cardinal when, in fact, Rome had been dying to get rid of him because of his incompetence. The Cardinal had hopefully sent him off to a distant parish - but once there he had immediately sacked the parish council as well as church officials, explaining that is what God had told him to do. But, highly unpopular though Quill had been, the Cardinal tells Blackie, "Find Gus, Today. See to it, Blackwood .... The Vatican does not like to lose bishops, even auxiliaries."

It makes an entertaining story, at its best when Quill is at his most offensive, as when he takes offence at a nude painting in Blackie's study, the work of Blackie's cousin. "By the way, John," he said in a man-to-man tone. "Isn't that picture a little risqué for a bishop's study?"
"I think it's quite chaste," Blackie replied, "though perhaps, on occasion, distracting."
"Well, I would disagree. I'm sure Jesus wouldn't like it."

Parts of it are narrated by Blackie (who still always refers to God as "She") and parts by other characters, not all of whom are clearly introduced to us until later in the plot. Blackie is a shrewd character and (somewhat improbably) works out where Quill must be. He also eventually identifies the criminal who had plotted to get rid of Gus - but he does not neglect his "pastoral rounds - the hospital, the dead, the dying, the sick, the troubled, the sad, the bereaved". The church background is very well handled, and there are occasional mentions of real people such as Bishop Duggan of Chicago who "spent thirty years or so in an asylum, quietly passing his time in prayer and good works".

As always, the author is fairly sexually explicit, as when a girl tells her boyfriend, "I'll need some foreplay to prepare for marriage. You can't expect me to do it all on our wedding night."
"Foreplay?" the boyfriend stutters.
"You know, mess around with my boobs and stuff." It all sounds rather too self-conscious. But, like the whole book, it's fun to read. Recommended.

The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain (2001)
The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain sees Bishop Blackie Ryan accompanying Cardinal Sean Cronin on a visit to Paris, where he is asked to help find a missing handsome young priest, Jean-Claude Chrétien, who had become a much-loved "national celebrity who didn't know what a celebrity was", with his own TV show. Blackie watches some of his videos and recognises how "a light seemed to radiate from his young face and then the room. Pure charisma. One does not spend as many years in the priesthood as I have without developing a certain cynicism about charismatic preachers. Often they are narcissistic charlatans," but Jean-Claude "was patently not one such. He made no neurotic demands on anyone. Rather he shared what he believed with us and invited us gently to believe in the same good news."

Blackie meets up with a young and beautiful woman begging for money at the door of the church of St-Germain-des-Prés. When he hires her as a translator, she turns out to be an excellent Dr Watson and a brilliant musician as well. She is at his side as he discovers that neither the Church nor the police are eager to have the saintly priest returned. Then miracles seem to start - and, as the blurb puts it, there's nothing that scares the Church more than miracles!

This is a less entertaining story than those describing priestly and police in-fighting in the Chicago diocese, but it raises some significant religious issues, as when Blackie (who tells the story throughout) comments, "I had not checked in with God either at Notre-Dame or at Ste-Chapelle. I would check in with him here (at the church of St-Germain-des-Prés) and ask him why he permitted ... atrocities - and all the other demonization which had marked the erratic history of our species. I didn't expect an answer." Later he thinks, "I am well aware that I amuse You. I suspect that we all amuse You, but I am one of those who knows that. I promise I won't tell anyone."

Blackie concedes that priests can lose their faith but "no more often than a couple of times a day". Then he finds that, surprisingly, the charismatic Jean-Claude had written about God: "Do you exist? I think not. I have never seen you or touched you or felt you. Well, sometimes I think you're present but that may be wish fulfillment. Intellectually, I have no reason to believe. Yet much of the time I act like I do believe .... Only when I have time to reflect do I feel doubts, and then after the doubts certainty that the universe is cold and lonely. I know that I am a hypocrite and a fool. Then I preside over the Eucharist in my unsteady bumbling way and I know that you are. I don't believe but I know."
"Most priests," comments Blackie (speaking, one can't help but suppose, for the author) "if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time."

Another issue that always interests Blackie (and the author) is the role of women and the possibility (or impossibility) of married priests. As a mother prioress, close to eighty, tells him, "It does not seem right in times like our own to forbid young priests sexual pleasure with a wife they love, does it?" For himself, Blackie replies, "I wish there were a wider variety of ways of being a priest. I can also understand why a priest under enormous strain can feel the need for loving consolation."
"You yourself have felt such a need?"
Blackie gave his standard answer: "Only on Sunday afternoons in an empty rectory."

At one stage, Blackie explains to the reader that "It was time for me to list the possible suspects, which is what detectives do in mystery stories if not in real life. It is a ritual which almost never helps." How right he is! But even he goes on to do it, albeit in a more interesting way than most, as when he described the Church's feeling that present-day saints were distracting and embarrassing. "Yet the Church leadership these days did not poison troublesome priests. Rather it leaned on their superiors to shut them up".

As usual, there comes a sudden moment when Blackie finds he can penetrate the mystery from all the data he had accumulated in his brain: "The illumination which had teased me and slipped away so often, exploded from the dim sub-basements of my brain into full consciousness." And it is a totally unexpected solution but, as Blackie points out, "Grace was at work everywhere in this strange story .... Too much grace - strange grace, the work of a God who by Her own admission is strange".

The Bishop in the West Wing (2002)
The Bishop in the West Wing is an unlikely story about a poltergeist at loose in the White House, with an equally unlikely Irish President who invites Bishop Blackie to investigate. After all, the newly elected President, "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn, is an Irish Catholic from the South side of Chicago and the Irish take care of their own. Indeed he seems surrounded by his own friends and relations. Bishop Blackie prowls the corridors of the West Wing, having persuaded the local security people to grant him access to everywhere he wants to go, even the Oval Office!

As well as having to put up with the antics of the mischievous poltergeist who drops pictures off walls or china into heaps (without breaking anything in true poltergeist style), the new President has a lot to deal with, including two assassination attempts and baseless charges of sexual harassment, as well as a major rebellion breaking out in China. Blackie, who just happens to have his camera at the ready when a rocket launcher is fired at the White House, is able to take a series of remarkably clear photos of the two would-be assassins, so, one way or another, he is kept quite busy.

The idea of the book came after the author had been invited to the White House in Clinton's time, but unfortunately using it as the setting for this story just does not work. The political in-fighting does not convince in the same way as the clerical in-fighting in previous books, and Irish whimsey is no substitute for a strong plot (the Irish, according to Blackie, "never say what they mean and never mean what they say"). And the way that all the poltergeist activity ("doors slamming, chains rattling, paintings falling off the wall, vases flying across the room, windows springing open during snowstorms, thermostats going crazy, televisions switching on and off" is just calmly accepted by all the White House staff , without ever making a major news story, defies belief.

The President admits to Blackie, "I'm lost, Blackwood. Lost. What the hell am I doing here?" He then explains that he has lost all interest in sex since his wife died. Blackie (who narrates the story) noticed that the President's administrative assistant and "China Consultant", Dr Marianna Genevosa, was "displaying a delightful expanse of nylon-covered athletic leg" so thought, quite rightly, that there might be hope for him yet. It is she who carefully explains later that, "There are no experts on China. I'm a political scientist whose specialization is the history of Chinese politics."

Blackie deals with the poltergeist by ordering her (he is sure there is some connection with an adolescent girl), "Get out of here! This instant!".
"The presence paused, as though its feelings were hurt by my attitude.
'I said get out! I'm not impressed by your cheap tricks! I've seen them all before! GO!'
She didn't want to go. Stubborn brat. She knew she had to go.
Why she knew that escaped me. They always do, however, like the child banished to a 'time-out' knows he has to go to the corner.|
Sadly she departed.
Poor thing."

Absurd though the plot is, there are still some good moments, such as the TV program in which Marianna Genevosa routes the President's critics, and there are some entertaining characters such as the resourceful Yaqui Indian medicine woman known as Travels by Night, and the cold intolerant Archbishop ("tall, gaunt with thin grey hair, a lean and hungry face, pale blue eyes that seemed perpetually unfocused behind rimless glasses who was, according to Cardinal Cronin, "dumber than most people think he is") who unsuccessfully tries to dictate to the President the line he should take on abortion and on "the hiring of sodomites in gevernment office". And, when one of the security guards get shot, you really care what happens to her.

But the final revelation about the poltergeist is nothing short of bizarre. It is all very well for the author to explain that it was just "for the fun of it he made the president an Irish Catholic from the South Side of Chicago (though I am from the West Side and hence more civilized and refined)." But the joke soon wears thin.

The Bishop Goes to The University (2003)
The Bishop Goes to The University is set, the author explains, in an imaginary university that is generally known as The University in Chicago, not Notre Dame where he taught. And the characters too are his own invention: "Any similarity between my creatures and God's results from the fact that the latter is a comedienne. Or, to put it differently, unlike some far more distinguished writers about The University, I am not drawing from life." This sounds like a crack about fellow Notre Dame author Raph McInerney, who also wrote thrillers about Catholic priests (and nuns). They did not always see eye to eye.

This ought to be an interesting story as the author is describing the sort of university background that he knew so well, but unfortunately it is let down by a most unconvincing plot involving the assassination in a double-locked room in the Divinity School of a Russian Orthodox monk in full regalia who turns out to be a Roman Catholic cardinal! In fact , he had been "not just a Catholic monk in an Orthodox monastery but a Catholic Archbishop in an Orthodox monastery". Blackie discovers it is all part of an international intrigue, involving not only intelligence agents but the Sicilian and Russian mobs - and even the Vatican itself.

There are some nice touches as when Dr Dorina Keane, the "charming and tasteful young woman", who had turned out to be Dean of the Divinity School, shows Blackie (who is the narrator throughout) "a circular table near the door on our right as we entered (the dining room). 'That's where the Economics Department sits,' she whispered with some awe. 'Nobel prizewinners.'
'What are they talking about?'
'Often it's their golf scores.' "

Blackie is at his most interesting when dealing with religious issues. When the Dean asks him how he deals with the problem of evil, he quotes the answer, "Mostly by referencing the opposite problem of good .... How come there is good in the world? .... Just as believers in a beneficent deity should be haunted by the problem of natural evil, so agnostics, atheists, pessimists and nihilists should be haunted by the problem of friendship, love, beauty, truth, humor, compassion, fun. Never forget the problem of fun."

As for hell, Blackie tells students, "It's an option we should not lightly dismiss. However, God is very clever. Because He is implacably forgiving love, He's not likely to let any of us get away."

There is, Blackie comments, "no accounting for God's oddities". Certainly odd things happen in this story, even including two violently explosive assaults on The University from gun-toting mobsters.

In the end, a high-up Vatican official tells Blackie how impressed they are with him. But Blackie wants no fuss in Rome. "The invisible little auxiliary bishop should be especially invisible in Rome."
The official tells him, "The Holy Father says, 'Who is this Monsignor Ryan?' We tell him that he's an auxiliary to Cardinal Cronin. He holds out his hand to indicate a certain height and says, 'Ah, little man with kind blue eyes and a mischievous smile. He is very smart. Perhaps he should write romans policers - mystery novels.'
Blackie adds the comment, "Papal infallibility, fortunately for all of us, does not extend to judgments about almost invisible auxiliary bishops. Mischievous smile indeed! I waved away the suggestion. Better not to be known in Rome at all."

But is prolific author Father Greeley actually running out of ideas? Even Blackie repeats himself. Four times he says about the Irish, "You let a couple of them in," (he sighed loudly) "and the first thing you know there goes the neighbourhood". And every time he says it, this crack seems to reduce everyone to laughter. Eventually even he "figured I had milked that line for all it was worth and better come up with another." Maybe the time has come for him to retire gracefully. Or be promoted.

The Bishop in the Old Neighbourhood (2005)
The Bishop in the Old Neighbourhood takes us back to the location of the author's preschool years at the church of St Lucy's, where he had been baptised, and that actually disappeared in 1977. But in the story it is described as a humble edifice at the heart of a venerable Chicago neighborhood now suffering the throes of gentrification. Three dead bodies have been left in the sanctuary, stripped, mutilated, and shot through the head, execution-style. A warning to those who would remake the neighborhood---or to St. Lucy's charismatic Polish monsignor, who has made a few enemies of his own?

Dispatched by his cardinal to investigate, Bishop Blackie Ryan fears that the atrocious murders are only the beginning of a campaign of terror directed at this particular church. But to solve the mystery, and to banish the evil gathering over the community, Blackie will need unexpected help from his own long-dead father, as well as from Sergeant Declan O'Donnell, a savvy young cop with a touch of the second sight, who is attached to a special undercover unit who like to describe themselves as "sniffers". They happily ignore any fine points of law that might impede their investigations ("We don't need no fucking permission," their leader, the redoubtable Dragon Lady Captain Huong tells them. "We want to take them out, we take them out.") But, compared with most of the other Chicago cops and agents we meet, they and their computer hacking activities appear relatively civilized.

And then there is Camilla Datilo, an attractive assistant state's attorney and champion volleyball player of Sicilian origins, with whom Declan falls in love. At the end of the book Camilla explains how "he began very slowly and very delicately to unbutton my blouse, push aside my bra, and kiss my breasts. If a woman has boobies like mine, she gets used to guys trying to grope her. They disgust me. But his was different. I remembered again seeing a sacristan nun reverently kissing a chalice when I was a kid. I was a chalice. I liked being kissed. His tongue touched, ah so briefly, a nipple. I sighed or groaned or did something, because he laughed, then just as slowly and delicately rearranged me and butrtoned up my blouse." Then he proposes to her. A chalice indeed!

This over-the-top story, complete with murderous threats and major explosions, is nearly all narrated by Blackie or by Declan, but Blackie remains the more interesting character. It is he, of course, who in the end solves the mystery when "the elevator door (in Blackie's brain) swung open and stayed open .... I saw everything. Feverishly, I considered all the components of my insight. It was crazy, mad, unthinkable." Yes, that just about sums it up. But it still makes quite an enterining read.

Blackie describes his boss, Sean Cardinal Cronin, as "tall, handsome, trim, broad-shouldered, white hair, immaculately groomed, perfectly tailored, and with a large ruby ring", looking "much too presentable to be one of ours. Generally our kind look like tired and corrupt old men in funny dresses. Or dumpy little men in jeans and Chicago sports jackets like me."

But the cardinal is almost 75 now and flies off to Rome to postpone his retirement and arrange for his succession, with the result that at the end of the book Blackie is informed that he himself "has been elevated to the rank of Coadjutor Archbishop .... with right to succession." Let's hope it happens soon so as to open up some more interesting (and more convincing) plot situations. But it does seem rather an unlikely move for someone who can say, "The leadership of the Church is made up of weak human beings who are often insensitive and not infrequently idiots". You can see why the author's novels were not always appreciated by his church.

The Bishop at the Lake (2007)
The Bishop at the Lake describes how Archbishop Malachi Nolan has designs on the diocese of Chicago, despite the fact that the Most Rev Blackie Ryan, himself recently appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Chicago (with Right to Succession), is currently in line for the post. Assigned by his old friend Sean Cardinal Cronin to keep a close eye on his rival, Blackie travels to the Nolan estate, where he finds that Spike Nolan, founder of Aviation Electronics, isn't dead yet, but his family is already feuding over control of his multi-million dollar company. The only family member not concerned in the struggle is Archbishop Malachi, so why is he the one targeted by an unknown killer? Blackie sets about solving the mystery of how it was that his fellow archbishop came to be nearly stung to death by hornets inside a locked room.

The author explains that he had been watching English TV mystery films that "seemed always to involve a country house, of which that damp little island seems to have enormous numbers." So thinking that Blackie "might not survive the dampness of the English countryside, I decided to create an English country house on a dune in the rain forest of South Western Michigan." It is there that Spike Nolan, who had been a Spitfire pilot in England in the Second World War, now lives, surrounded by his ambitious and argumentative family. His English background is not always entirely convincing as when the author refers to "the Royal Army" (a term never used) and explains that Spike was awarded the DSC and DSO, whereas a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) would have been a much more appropriate award for a pilot. As for England always being damp ....

It is Blackie who tells the story throughout (except, rather confusingly, for two short chapters) and he is more than a little impressed by Spike's grand daughter, Margaret Anne Nolan, whom he refers to as "the magic child", who is a lively and appealing character, even if she has a dotty mother. And Blackie himself remains an interesting character, with comments like "More detailed gratitude later, I informed the One-in-Charge. Good of you to make up for my stupidity. Doubtless the reply was that only the Pope was infallible and that but rarely. I was suitably rebuked."

However, the action is unnecessarily slowed down by the inclusion of unnecessarily long quotes from police department records, all of them in italics, which makes them quite awkward to read. And the way that they suddenly slip into first person accounts can get confusing.

Other members of the family are much less interesting and, especially in the case of an ex-double agent, much less convincing, and the plot is not really strong enough to hold the attention.

The Archbishop in Andalusia (2008)
The Archbishop in Andalusia sees Archbishop John Blackwood Ryan (who narrates the story throughout) in Spain, where he has been sent to attend a conference on American philosophy in the "historic city" of Seville. But the local cardinal has really summoned him there in the hope that he can avert a murder before it happens. Doña Teresa, a beautiful and pious aristocratic widow, finds herself beset by avaricious relatives (not, unfortunately, always very interesting characters) who are determined to control her life and fortune. With three generations of passionate nobility sharing the same roof, it is, we are told, only a matter of time before pride, greed, and lust lead to bloodshed. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Blackie's old friend Cardinal Cronan is seriously ill.

It's very much the mixture as before, with a slow-moving plot, and the emphasis on talk and not on action. Blackie still frequently says "patently" and when other people copy him, he continues pointing out that that that is "stealing one of my favorite lines". There are also lots of diversions, such as little history lessons, detailed accounts of church services, pages about Cardinal Cronin's gangster father, and even a complete wedding homily inviolving strawberries which is described as "wonderful" and of which Blackie (and presumably the author too) seem unreasonably proud. Even the Pope apparently saw it on television and found it "charming"!

Unfortunately Blackie does not particularly like Seville ("The gold in the cathedral glittered until you realised it was stolen from the Aztecs. The outside of the arena where the bulls were killed looked like a set the Lyric Opera of Chicago had lent to Seville from its Carmen production. The souvenir shops were like all others around the world." And on the train from Seville to Cordoba, he grumbles, "Take a train west from Chicago to Omaha, and you will see the same beauty." And when given roast beef, Andalusian style, he comments "It was quite tasty but I preferred it American style". Even his nephew tells him that "Costa del Sol is OK, but it is not as nice as Grand Beach".

He enjoys being called "El Padrecito Negro - the little priest called Blackie", even though the Spanish Cardinal is surprised to find that "You wear black jeans, a black clerical shirt without a collar, a blue and red windbreaker celebrating the Chicago Cubs whoever they be, and a baseball cap that depicts a fearsome toro, but not one of ours."

He still has regular chats to the deity, so when he finds the beautiful Doña Teresa "still a disturbing presence", he told the Deity that "that was the way you made her. Don't blame me." Then, after offering her some helpful advice ("When a woman discards her clothing for her lover, she is in effect emptying herself for him to reveal her love just as God empties himself for us. And vice versa. That is all in the last encyclical"), he "remarked to the Deity, you didn't let me down that time. I said all the right things which I would never have thought of myself. Thanks for the help. Now she's in your court. As usual there was no answer. Some day there will be and I'll be scared silly." This self putting-down is one of his most attractive characteristics.

Also conveniently in Seville is Blackie's nephew, plus his girlfriend who flies her company's jet plane. She is also the president of ACE Fellowship, ACE being "the remarkable Notre Dame missionary effort to provide teachers for poor Catholic schools". She explains that "I taught in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, where the hurricane hit the hardest. The kids were great. It was fun." Not quite the happiest way of putting it, surely?

it is half-way through the book before a murder attempt (or rather three attempts) are made on a woman's life: "She was poisoned. Strong barbiturates in her final glass of sherry at the end of the day. A knife stuck into her belly. A gun-shot that creased her head .... Whoever it was really wanted to kill her." It is hard to take this too seriously. In the end, you are left more concerned about the ill Cardinal in Chicago than anything going on in Seville.

Blackie, wearing his usual "invisibility cloak" that allows him to disappear into the background (although it also has the unfortunate effect of getting him left out when tea and cookies are on offer), is soon able to work out how the murder was attempted, then he is mercifully free to hurry back to Chicago.

So what could happen next? What about making him the next Pope? Now that might be really interesting.

Andrew Greeley has his own (rather cluttered) website, and there are numerous references to him on the web, including quite an interesting interview with him about Catholicism in America on the Religion & Ethics site.There's also a long article comparing Father Blackie with Father Brown (to the latter's advantage) on the Commonweal site.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


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
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