William X(avier) Kienzle Essay - Critical Essays

Kienzle, William X(avier)


William X(avier) Kienzle 1928–

American mystery writer.

Kienzle draws upon his experiences as a former Roman Catholic priest in the writing of his murder mysteries. His works center on a character named Father Koesler, a priest-sleuth who is called in to investigate mysterious deaths in his diocese in Detroit. As these mysteries are solved, Kienzle offers the reader glimpses of life in the priesthood and comments on controversial issues within the Catholic church.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9.)

Joseph A. Tetlow

[In his The Rosary Murders, William Kienzle] has rounded up a great crowd of current church types and brought them vividly alive in a zippy, church-wise whodunit. His is a gently bemused but dry-eyed picture of the church in the postmodern world, a.k.a. the Archdiocese of Detroit in Murder City. But Kienzle likes his people. How often do murder mystery readers feel as though they've lost a friend in the murder victims? Of course, the church has changed: Chesterton's Father Brown emerged a mystery wrapped in an enigma; Kienzle's hero-priest emerges merely a puzzle. There it is. But Kienzle seems to intend the priest and nun victims as metaphors for religious servants' dedicated availability in today's frantic world, and their relatively easy destruction. Maybe that's a Weltanschauung. If it's humbug, it's very high-grade.

Joseph A. Tetlow, "Benedicamus Domino," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press. Inc.; © 1979; all rights reserved), Vol. 140, No. 17, May 5, 1979, p. 375.∗

Winslow Dix

The Rosary Murders, a first novel by William X. Kienzle, is an old-fashioned thriller that doesn't unclench its grip on the reader until the final pages. A psychotic killer, loose in Detroit, brutally murders the most accessible people in the world: Catholic nuns and priests. His calling card: a black rosary wrapped around each victim's wrist.

Kienzle's meticulous description of each murder is chillingly graphic. The prose suddenly halts, and the slow-motion camera assumes control, as in the final scene of "Bonnie and Clyde" when the anti-heroes are gunned to smithereens….

Full of clichés, it is, nonetheless, compelling reading. When not lavishly depicting the slaughter of individual innocents, Kienzle vividly dramatizes American clerical life: the stale jokes, boredom, and over-indulgence in food, drink, and tobacco. The very names of the characters—Archbishop Mark Boyle, Monsignor O'Brien, Mother Mary Honora—nostalgically evoke a chapter in American Catholicism.

Father Robert Koesler, Kienzle's amateur sleuth, pores over mysteries "like some priests read the Bible." His wit, honed by years of Agatha Christie, solves a puzzle that is worthy of his mentor at her most deceptive. Lieutenant Koznicki, Polish Catholic and exemplary family man, is the perceptive, relentless professional detective.

The Rosary Murders has its flaws—the plot meanders far too frequently into the sexual escapades of newspaper reporter Joe Cox; the priests and nuns are mere types; and the final three pages, after the mystery has been solved, should have been excised. But the book does not commit the unpardonable sin: boredom. All its sins are venial, quickly forgiven every time the rosary-murderer ritualistically drapes another string of beads around a victim's wrist.

Winslow Dix, "From Massacre in Maine to Murder in Miami: Investigating a Lethal Fictional Foursome," in The Chronicle Review (copyright © 1979 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), May 29, 1979, p. R-15.∗

Tony Bednarczyk

Mystery lovers can rejoice as a new star appears in the heavens of whodunits! That new star is William X. Kienzle, whose first work [The Rosary Murders] is an engrossing thriller that will satisfy the most demanding armchair detectives.

On Ash Wednesday, someone pulls the plug on an aging priest's respirator. The following Friday, a nun is murdered in an inner city convent. On each of the next six Fridays, some brutal madman claims a victim from the ranks of the Detroit archdiocese….

Kienzle, a former priest and news editor, knows the rectory and the city room to the smallest detail and that knowledge shows in the various locales that arise during the course of this well paced, tightly written novel. More importantly, Kienzle creates well defined characters that inhabit his story rather than decorate it. The reader is shown, in a premonition, the victims at their daily lives and these personal introductions heighten the horror of their deaths.

With The Rosary Murders, one gets the distinctly satisfying impression that Kienzle, a most talented newcomer to the genre, will again delight readers with a second superbly crafted mystery and that Father Koesler may very likely become the successful Catholic answer to Rabbi Small. One sincerely hopes the wait will not be long.

Tony Bednarczyk, "Fiction: 'The Rosary Murders'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1979 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 39, No. 4, July, 1979, p. 125.

Publisher's Weekly

Kienzle's second thriller ["Death Wears a Red Hat"] matches "The Rosary Murders" as a dazzling fusion of acid comedy and grisly doings connected to Roman Catholic traditions. Father Koesler, the detectives and newspaper reporters—familiar from the first novel—work hard to solve another wave of murders in Detroit. The shocks begin with the discovery of a mobster's severed head, tied to a Cardinal's hat in the cathedral. Then more heads of notorious criminals who have escaped justice turn up, replacing the tops of statues in churches and the seminary. The gruesome "capital" punishments give Father Koesler solid clues; so does his knowledge of voodoo rites, leading to the killers' unmasking. But the priest then has to wrestle with the dilemma of whether to report his secret. The story is a rouser in more ways than one; it could make any reader with a guilty conscience a bit uneasy.

"Mysteries: 'Death Wears a Red Hat'," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the February 22, 1980, issue of Publisher's Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1980 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 217, No. 7, February 22, 1980, p. 93.

Newgate Callendar

Of the writers who deal with mystery and murder as seen through the eyes of a priest, Ralph McInerny and William X. Kienzle are probably the two leading American practitioners…. Mr. Kienzle's man is Father Robert Koesler in Detroit. He first appeared in "The Rosary Murders," which attracted a good deal of attention. Now Father Koesler is back, in ["Death Wears a Red Hat"]….

Basically the book is a procedural. Father Koesler works with the police. But the thrust of the book is religious, with many observations about Catholicism in the modern world. The murders can be solved only by someone with a Catholic background. And very perplexing murders they are. Somebody is hacking the heads off victims and putting them on statues in churches. It so happens that all of the victims are villains, and there are those in Detroit who want to give the murderer the keys to the city….

The situation is highly contrived. "Death Wears a Red Hat" is in some respects a throwback to the Ellery Queen mysteries—ingenious but improbable. Also improbable is the modus operandi that the author asks the reader to accept. But the ending is interesting, and contains a moral problem that confuses the law enforcement people. When is a murder not a murder? "Death Wears a Red Hat" will not bore you. The book is well written and has some well-drawn characters, including a pair of competing reporters and some believable cops. And priests, all over the place, who play golf, specialize in arcane church lore, pass themselves off as restaurant critics (at least, one of them does), argue and complain.

Newgate Callendar, "Crime: 'Death Wears a Red Hat'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1980, p. 17.

Newgate Callendar

In "Mind Over Murder," Mr. Kienzle has set out to write a murder mystery, but for a long time, nothing much happens. Drawing on his own experiences as a priest, the author must have his say about the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church. He reflects a liberal viewpoint: The way both evil and good men can subvert the essential meaning of the church clearly disturbs him. The result is writing that bogs down into didacticism.

When things do happen, the plotting suddenly gets very tricky. About halfway through, the killer is revealed. But soon afterwards, the same priest who was murdered once is again murdered—by another killer. And by a third, a fourth, a fifth. Eventually the "mystery" has to end...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Katha Pollitt

Remember Father Brown? G. K. Chesterton's Edwardian Catholic priest-detective solved the most ingenious murders effortlessly, thanks to a childlike simplicity and an unshakable trust in the doctrines of the Church—which often had an uncanny bearing on his cases. The years have not been kind to Catholic certainties, and that may be why Father Koesler of Detroit needs almost 300 pages [in Mind Over Murder] to solve a crime that Father Brown would have wrapped up in 20. Unlike Father Brown, poor Koesler has to contend with loneliness, doubt, Church bureaucracy, declining attendance at Mass and his fellow priests. His resultant air of detachment and faint depression slow him down a bit as a detective—even I...

(The entire section is 239 words.)

Andrew M. Greeley

William Kienzle is the Harry Kemelman of Catholicism, and his priest detective, Robert Koesler (like Kienzle, sometimes editor of the Michigan Catholic), is the Detroit response to Rabbi Small….

Like Kemelman, Kienzle has an eye and an ear for mystery stories. Kienzle's sensitivity to pathos and foolishness, shallow fads and rigid ideologies, mindless nonsense and deep faith of the contemporary Catholic scene compares favorably with Kemelman's vivid description of suburban Jewish life.

Both men are superb sociologists of ethnicity.

"Assault With Intent" is about six attempted murders in a declining Roman Catholic seminary—and one real murder—which may be...

(The entire section is 379 words.)

Newgate Callendar

[Assault with Intent] is the latest in the series featuring Father Koesler, the Catholic priest who operates out of a parish in the Detroit area. In this case, is there a homicidal maniac on the loose, who intends to decimate the Detroit priesthood? Someone makes several murder attempts, and the newspapers (and then the media in general) get into the act. The two Detroit newspapers' star reporters, Patricia Lennon and Joe Cox (who happen to be living together), are on the story. (They have appeared previously in this series.) But when an attempt is made on his life, everything becomes very personal to Father Koesler. Of course he finally figures everything out.

But Mr. Kienzle has set up straw...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Marc Hart

[Assault with Intent] is mildly entertaining and gives a rather interesting view of modern Catholics, from the old priests in the seminary who find the new ways of the Church difficult to understand to the conservative group called the Tridentines, who are pretty much a caricature of people on the lunatic fringe of conservatism. In addition, the author describes the actions of a group of inept people in great detail. The net effect is a great many comic situations. Because of the large number of sight gags, under proper direction this book could well be made into a good comedy-mystery movie. (It even has the required nude female scene.) In fact the movie would probably be better than the book. Father Koesler is...

(The entire section is 155 words.)