Ralph McInerny’s titles all involve puns and allusions that grow out of the action. The title The Basket Case (1987), for example, carries the implication not only of psychological derangement but also of an infant abandoned in a basket, like Moses in the bulrushes. A Loss of Patients (1982) brings a loss of patience to all concerned, and those who rest in peace in Rest in Pieces (1985) have literally been blown to pieces. The Grass Widow (1983) focuses on two rejected women, one of whom smokes marijuana. The titles Nun of the Above (1985) and And Then There Was Nun (1984) clearly rely on linguistic play, while The Noonday Devil (1985) alludes to the medieval malaise accidie. Names of McInerny’s characters also reflect a certain gamesmanship, as with Geoffrey Chaser, the name of a pornographic novelist, clearly intended to conjure the ghost of Geoffrey Chaucer; Marie Murkin, suggestive of “merkin”; and Sister Mary Teresa’s nickname, Emtee, all too evocative of “empty.”
By virtue of the setting of the Father Dowling mysteries, the small Fox River community on the outskirts of Chicago, the novels partake of the ambience of both the small town and the booming metropolis. A portion of the wit and originality of the books, in fact, comes from this clash of big-city crime and sophistication with the values and culture of a midwestern small town. A Loss of Patients and The Basket Case, for example, center on local events, while Lying Three (1979) and Rest in Pieces bring the world of international politics and terrorism to Fox River. In Lying Three, a former anarchist confesses her past to Father Dowling, an assassin’s bullet narrowly misses the Israeli consul at Wrigley Field, an ardent Zionist is shot on the Fox River golf course, and the son of a local arms manufacturer with Arab connections is found drowned under suspicious circumstances. In Rest in Pieces, a Maryknoll priest, a liberation theologian who believes that the United States exploits Central America, brings with him international cocaine traffic and political assassination. In either locale, the crime itself most frequently involves the wealthy or the upper middle class.
Andrew Broom’s Wyler, Indiana, setting and Sister Mary Teresa’s Chicago setting involve some of the same mix in their portraits of established neighborhoods and the seamy inner city.
Furthermore, these worlds are a peculiar mix of Rome and the Midwest—the medieval and the modern. Dowling reads Dante and Saint Thomas Aquinas and interprets human behavior through their eyes. A swinging-singles bar, the scene of heavy drinking, sexual misbehavior, and social mayhem of various sorts, is known as the Gutter Ball; with its smoke-filled darkness, smoldering vocalist, and despairing laughter, it seems “some penitential place whose habitués were paying for their sins.” There the murderer meets his intended victims, and there, “no matter the smiles on their faces,” the patrons suffer the torments of Hell. Another bar, the Mangy Manger, is likened to a vision of Hell, with “the bestial beat” of its “dreadful music” and its clientele with “utterly joyless” expressions, such as “those of the doomed and damned.” In The Basket Case, one of the characters has created his own Dantesque hell, for he experiences on Earth the punishment merited by adultery (the child of his unholy union is born with spina bifida; the anguished father consents to euthanasia and bars himself from confession and Holy Communion; he dies without holy rites in his mistress’s arms). In Getting a Way with Murder (1984), Father Dowling imagines the villain, a man who has murdered at least five people to prevent the discovery of an insurance fraud involving millions, “up to his neck in ice in the lowest region of the inferno.” Sister Mary Teresa, in turn, finds twelfth century parallels and advocates old-fashioned hanging and flogging for modern sins. This medieval judgment of the modern is an inseparable element of McInerny’s worldview.
In a typical McInerny plot, the murderer is someone who cannot relate to others in a normal fashion, someone so obsessed with possessions or with family honor that for him or her people lack value and are expendable obstructions. Readers sometimes learn who the murderer is early in the game, so the pleasure comes from seeing how the mystery will be unraveled, the guilt fixed, and the charges made. At other times, the identity of the murderer is a total surprise, though his unveiling grows out of the amateur detective’s psychological analysis of events and people.
Murder begets murder, as the murderer tries to hide his guilt and as investigators seek the weak link in a chain of deaths. In most instances the solution depends on the unveiling of a lie or a series of lies, particularly about relationships. Police routine proves inadequate, and solutions depend instead on imaginative flair and intuitive leaps. Furthermore, witnesses fail to tell the police details vital to unraveling motives and acts, but sometimes let them slip to Father Dowling or Emtee or else go to them for confession or reassurance. In Getting a Way with Murder, for example, a young innocent brings Father Dowling a computerized list of insurance-policy beneficiaries that reveals an insurance scam of a scale sufficient to explain multiple murders. In like manner, confidences made to Andrew Broom in his capacity as lawyer give him an inside track on motives and possibilities.
Both Father Dowling and Emtee clearly respond to a higher law than humankind’s and consequently do not feel too uncomfortable about keeping information from the police or handling cases in their own way. Emtee sidesteps the police at every opportunity, obstructing the law in the name of justice, lying and encouraging her associates to lie when occasion requires, withholding evidence, and making accusations on the basis of incredibly flimsy evidence. Father Dowling is not above slipping a credit card between frame and door to make an illegal entry in a just cause, plying a fellow clergyman with drink to loosen his tongue about a parishioner, or visiting a woman involved in a murder in order to slip a key photograph into his pocket when he asks for a second cup of coffee. Nor does he worry about confronting a suspect head-on, spelling out his...
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