Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Bishop at Sea – Andrew Greeley

A haunted aircraft carrier is the scene for this locked room mystery featuring Bishop John Blackwood Ryan. As in the case of the previously reviewed Happy Are Those Who Mourn there is the presence of a malevolent ghost. This time, however, there is not a murder in a locked room but a naval officer who seemingly vanishes from a locked room. Compounding the mystery are two additional disappearances of naval officers, cronies of a martinet of a commanding officer whose terrorizing and intimidation of the USS Langley crew led to a breakdown in morale. The crew believes that the vanished men were killed and tossed overboard. Strange manifestations and creepy events especially among the women's quarters lead some of the more superstitious crew members to think that "Digby" Hoy, the most recent of the missing officers, is haunting the ship. Like the other book The Bishop at Sea is less a mystery novel than it is a sounding board for Greeley to discuss sociopolitical issues. In this case, the major issue is the role of women in the military.

Frustratingly, the mystery aspects become less and less important to the book as Blackie gets closer to the heart of the evil on board the carrier. The locked room is presented as puzzling but the solution is prosaic. The ghost is not at all a ghost. The disappearances are not disappearances. Greeley alludes to Chesterton's "The Invisible Man" repeatedly with teasing references to the crew to look for the mailman on board the aircraft which automatically telegraphs the solution to one that will involve disguise of some sort.

Rather than being a mystery novel The Bishop at Sea is really about didactics. Not only is the role of women in the military discussed ad nauseam with an ace woman pilot acting as a symbol for how women are maltreated, abused, and taunted, but the role of the military itself in United States politics is intensely discussed. Greeley gets to voice his opinions of how much government money is wasted on the military force especially with regard to aircraft carriers; how the military protects and covers up bad behavior and dangerous hazing that borders on attempted murder; and how there are two schools of thought in the military – the old veterans running everything who never wanted women in any roles whatsoever and the younger members, rising in rank, who see women in less traditional roles than their older superiors. As the parade of characters (and this is a huge cast) continues and Blackie probes further into the mystery the book seems less a novel than a protracted essay with characters' monologues serving as Greeley's bullet points in his lectures.

Based on other reviews elsewhere on the internet this is supposedly the best of the Blackie Ryan books. I will have to strongly disagree. Whereas Happy Are Those Who Mourn was a genuine mystery novel with an investigation that uncovered secrets that were integral to the story, The Bishop of Sea is a political diatribe disguised as a mystery novel. The mystery aspects of the book are always an afterthought, the solutions to those mysteries are not at all satisfying and presented way too matter-of-factly. The interrogation of the crew members becomes more and more an excuse to discuss controversy and "issues" with the mystery continually pushed to the background.

In the final pages when the mystery is sloppily solved the action explodes in violent gunfire, multiple bloody deaths, with the women saving the day. While I agree with many of Greeley's points the manner in which he uses his characters to put his theories and opinions into practice smacks of the contrived in this particular book. For this reason I felt cheated on multiple levels. I felt like a consumer who bought a mislabeled product then demands his money back on his purchase.

If you want to read a political treatise on women in the military and the role of the government in an aging backward military force then this is the book for you. As a mystery novel, however, The Bishop at Sea is a miserable failure.

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