Friday, April 6, 2012

FFB: Happy Are Those Who Mourn - Andrew Greeley

I bet you never knew that the Catholic Church has a little known law on its books that recognizes people who have made a "contract of love" with each other to be legitimately married in the eyes of the Church regardless of the couple never having their marriage consecrated in the rite of matrimony by a priest. Stunned? It's true and it's only one of many eyebrow raising bits of information about canonical law unknown to most Catholics (or anyone else, for that matter) that are revealed in Happy Are Those Who Mourn (1995), a fascinating mystery novel by priest, sociologist, and one time college professor Andrew Greeley.

I approached this book that deals heavily with the business -- both financial and spiritual -- of the Catholic Church, specifically the Archdiocese of Chicago, all in the context of a murder mystery with a air of smugness. Having been raised Catholic (though no longer attending mass nor participating in the rites and sacraments) I thought that I knew everything about my religion and that I would be bored with a rehash of the theological aspects that would most likely be written in simple to understand terms for a wider non-Catholic audience. I was hoping that the locked room murder plot would be enough to keep me interested. Instead I was slapped in the face by irony.

As I read I was captivated by all the discussions of canonical law and the financial obligations a U.S. parish has to the Archdiocese and to the Vatican. The plot hinges on a murder in a locked room and is mildly puzzling, but is not the real hook of the piece. The mystery is more concerned with the slow reveal of past secrets that eventually involve arcane and truly shocking laws in the Church. In particular I was astonished that there is a law dating back 1300 years that seems to condone a certain mortal sin or, rather, in extremely specific circumstances the sin in question is not a sin at all and does not need to be confessed. I was blown away by this.

"Blackie" Ryan is asked by his immediate superior Cardinal Sean Cronin to visit a suburban Chicago parish where the pastor, Monsignor Charles McInerney, recently died. It appears that the strange tower room in the rectory where the monsignor died is being haunted by the his spirit. Not only is the tower room in the rectory plagued with weird phenomena -- the TV and lights go on and off by themselves, books are thrown off of bookshelves, footsteps are heard in the outer hallway -- the church organ bursts unaccompanied into inappropriate music, and the electronic church bells chime Christmas tunes in the middle of a hot summer. Cardinal Cronin is not pleased and he will not have the weird goings on in Woodbridge become the subject of tabloids or the lead story of local TV news crews. Blackie has made a name for himself as a debunker of spook shows so he is sent to the suburb to put an end to the apparent poltergeist activity.

While in Woodbridge Blackie learns that the dead priest was intentionally murdered and that his death was covered up to appear accidental. He also uncovers some questionable financial dealings with the parish money. He and the current pastor approximate that somewhere there is a missing $10,000,000 that belongs to the Archdiocese. Where did it go? Was that the motive for the murder of the priest? And what has Lynn Reed, a local woman dubbed the town nympho by a staunch nun, have to do with the death? She is Woodbridge's most beautiful woman and is known to flirt with all the men whether married or not. She was also was seen leaving the rectory carrying out boxes of documents a few days after his death. Is there some sort of conspiracy at work in Woodbridge?

The contrast between Cardinal Cronin and Bishop Ryan makes for entertaining springboard to the book's complex web of financial chicanery, sexual dalliance, and madness in the suburbs. While Cronin is a vociferous, temperamental whiskey taking boss who likes to lecture and will hear no arguments, Blackie is laconic, calm and almost stoic. He likes to reply to questions with a variety of adverbs among which "Arguably", "Doubtful", and "Indeed" are the most common. He jokes about his "invisibility" being one of his best attributes in his detective side work. Like Father Brown he is often taken for granted or completely ignored though he is very much present and all-observing.

The most captivating part of Blackie's character is that he is a truly modern priest. He refers to God as She, he does not believe in the concept of hell, he views sexuality as an expression of human spirituality, and above all he sees God as all-loving and forgiving to the extreme. Most of the time this laid back priest is as affable as can be, but can be stern and unyielding when his patience is tested by fools and braggarts. There are quite a few of those types among the parishioners of Woodbridge. Blackie makes for a good detective, too.  He is skillful at getting people to drop their masks and show their true selves.  It's not just Q&A, however, there are a few nice touches of legitimate old-fashioned detective work and some intuitive reasoning that come into play.  Plus there is Blackie's belief in the existence of psychic phenomena, considered heretical by his Cardinal boss, but a genuine and welcome surprise to me. As Greeley slyly writes about the priest's dismissal of the poltergeist activity as "nothing but cheap tricks" I was convinced that the ghostly mischief would prove to be nothing but fakery, and yet... But that should be left for the reader to discover on his own.

Well read devotees of crime fiction may want to draw comparisons to John Dickson Carr and G.K. Chesterton in the story of a haunted tower, supernatural incidents and a locked room murder. There may be slight coincidences in those classic writers' books and stories but the true core of Greeley's story is not in the puzzle. Greeley is most interested in the secrets kept hidden in the hearts of Woodbridge's citizens. The heart of the story is quite literally found in the human heart -- in the desires and longings of the lonely, in the perverted pleasures of the corrupt, in the compassionate forgiveness of past transgressions, in the differences between a legal marriage and a marriage of the heart.

Andrew Greeley is something of a celebrity here in Chicago but I had never read anything he wrote until last week when I chose this mystery novel. He has written extensively in a variety of non-fiction (theology, psychology, self-help, sexuality) and fiction (fantasy, erotica, mystery). A best selling author throughout the 1980s, the subject of numerous TV, magazine and newspaper interviews, attention to his books and work has since dwindled. Most of his books are now out of print. There are a total of seventeen books in the Bishop Blackie Ryan series, most of them featuring plots with locked room murders, impossible crimes, and ghosts. This was a superior introduction to the series and I plan to read more. Blackie Ryan is one of the more fascinating religious sleuths out there. I never dreamed a mystery novel could enlighten me about my own religion.


  1. Glad you liked this. I've kept telling myself to try this series, try this series, try this series, but each time something gets in the way. One time it;s a Rex Stout, another time it's the new Paul Halter... I really ought to give it a try, and maybe keep my copy of the Catechism near at hand to stare and wonder...

    Although I do say that the bit on sexuality being an expression of spirituality is basically what I've always been taught (at least, ever since I was old enough to realise that it wasn't a stork who brought kids over).

  2. I've read and enjoyed all of these. The series can be uneven at times, but Blackie is always interesting. For me at least, the notion of sexuality as an expression of spirituality is often the most unconvincing thing about these books. Greeley's depiction of the male/female relationship is frequently and blatantly manipulated to make this point and often seems unrealistic as a result.

    I wonder what Greeley would make of Ralph McInerny's priest protagonist, Father Dowling, who was decidedly ambivalent about Vatican II. Interesting that Greeley and McInerny were writing at the same time, in the same geographic area, with such different views about the church.

    And now I'm thinking about the prevalence of Catholic and Episcopalian priests as sleuths. Are there any Southern Baptist or Assemblies of God ministers out there solving crime?

  3. John: It has been a long time since I read Greeley's books. I used to read his column when it was published in the Saskatchewan weekly Catholic newspaper but it has not been printered there for some time. I did not know he had suffered a major brain injury 4 years ago until I looked him up on the net after reading your review.

  4. Bill-

    He was always in the news for decades. I don't know about the brain thing, but he had a horrible accident two years ago. His coat got caught in a cab door and the driver took off not knowing Greeley was stuck. He fell to the ground and landed on his face and was dragged a bit. He's been recovering ever since. I think he has had to give up writing and speaking.

  5. Carol -

    In this book the character of Lynn Reed is most defintley created to take advantage of the arcane canonical law. I still liked the story. There are two others I want to read before dipping into the "uneven" books. Blackie is a great character probably a stand-in for Greeley. Even if the mystery in this one was like something lifted from the pages of Carolyn Wells I'm eager to read the others. THE BISHOP AT SEA is supposed to be the best as far as a mystery novel and I'm reading that one next.

  6. Patrick -

    If you read this book (or anything by Greeley that includes a discussion of sex) I think you'll discover that his idea of "spiritualty of sexuality" incorporates eroticism and desire as aspects of spirituality and does not condemn them as aspects of carnality. I was not taught that in Catholic school or any religious education classes when growing up. I had to discover that on my own.

    I just realized that today is Good Friday and I posted a book about a Catholicism. Completely unplanned but how coincidentally appropriate.

  7. Carol -

    I tried wracking my brain for other religious sleuths who aren't Catholic and came up only with Merrily Watkins, an Anglican vicar in the books by Phil Rickman. The mysteries he writes also incorporate the supernatural and Merry eventually studies to become a Deliverance Minister, aka an exorcist. But the books are turgid -- most run in excess of 600 pages in paperback editions! I gave up reading them.

    There is an excellent website about "clerical mysteries" and I'm sure you'll find a reverend or a preacher in the vast listings here

  8. John: He is not a Christian sleuth but I really enjoyed the Rabbi Small series by Harry Kemmelman.

  9. I have been in dubio on Andrew Greeley for nearly a year now. A locked room angle is usually enough to reel me in, but a combination of mixed reviews (one of them a short and very negative notice from Barry Ergang) and apprehensiveness of the possible preachy nature of these books prevented me from sampling them. I still feel split but will probably pick this one up if ever come across it. Love the old-fashioned floor plan, by the way!

  10. oooh, John, this sounds good. I too am a lapsed Catholic - but still if you ask me, I will say I am Catholic, yes.

    Anyway, I've heard of Greeley's books over the years but I never read any. No reasons really, I just never thought they would interest me, I suppose.

    But you've made this one sound terrific. I'm adding Greeley's name to my list immediately.

    Thanks, kiddo. :)

  11. TomCat-

    I will be reading/reviewing THE BISHOP AT SEA which is supposed to have the best impossible crime angle in the series. I hope it's an improvement on this one. (You especially won't like the solution at all in HAPPY ARE THOSE WHO MOURN. Of that I am certain.) Mysterious Press published HAPPY ARE THOSE WHO THIRST FOR JUSTICE, also a locked room mystery. I am trusting Otto Penzler's implicit taste in crime fiction (especially traditioanl detective novels) and hope it will turn out to be one of the better ones. That book is in my TBR pile as well.

    I didn't find anything in this book preachy at all. I have not read Barry's review. Which one did he slam? I couldn't find it via a few internet searches.

    But what Carol said in her comment is true: Greeley creates characters and unusual relationship in order to get across his point, but I don't see anything wrong with that. These are works of fiction, after all. Who says the characters have to be grounded in our reality? If his manipulation gets you to view human nature a bit differently then all the better.

    I guess for those who want to avoid reading discussions of Catholic dogma as applied to contemporary life problems then these books are not for you.

  12. Yvette -

    You know what they say: "Once a Catholic..." We can't escape our roots, can we? I do the same thing when asked.

    You may just like this book. It certainly was a surprise to me how much I got out of it. I think I chose to read this book at the right time in my life.

  13. John:

    Here's the review and it was posted on the GAD group:

    "HAPPY ARE THE PEACEMAKERS by Andrew M. Greeley.

    Unequivocally the dullest mystery novel I've ever read! The only reason I finished it was because it contains a locked-room mystery, and I wanted to see how it was solved. It reads more like a travelogue of Ireland with frequent references to Joyce's ULYSSES--as though the author wanted to display his erudition--than a mystery."

    I have no problem whatsoever with the kind of discussions you describe, as I am always open to different points of view, but I find the "turn-or-burn" argument to be a bit repetitive – which always makes me cautious when deciding to purchase a book that can be considered "Christian fiction." Hal White's collection of Revered Dean mysteries (also locked rooms) only ended up in my digital shopping cart after reassuring reviews from the likes of Allen J. Hubin (and I think Douglas Greene).

    Looking forward to your other reviews on this series. They will probably end up being the deciding factor whether or not to pick them up at some point in time.