After a long illness Notre Dame professor and author of Father Dowling mysteries died Friday morning.
Gerald Russello in National Review described Father Dowling as the “Patron Saint of Detectives:”
The United States has seen several exemplars of the priest-detective, including Father Roger Dowling, pastor of St. Hilary’s Church, a small parish in seemingly bucolic Fox River, Illinois. Dowling is the creation of Ralph McInerny, a Catholic intellectual who has spent most of his career teaching philosophy at Notre Dame. Over the years, McInerny has written more than two dozen Father Dowling novels, as well as a separate series of mystery novels under the pen name Monica Quill, featuring Sister Mary Teresa. The Father Dowling series has been popular, rating even a four-season television series, starring actor Tom Bosley of Happy Days fame.
The Wisdom of Father Dowling has just come out, and this collection of 15 short stories featuring the eponymous hero illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. Its title invokes The Wisdom of Father Brown, which is probably Chesterton’s best collection, and the two priests share several characteristics. The centrality of reason is one: McInerny, like Chesterton, is a committed Thomist, and the respect for reasoning is evident throughout Scholastic philosophy. Nevertheless, Dowling, like Brown, is also a committed priest, and the twin concerns for physical reality and metaphysical salvation are combined when he is looking to solve a crime. Other shared characteristics include a wry sense of humor and the enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life, such as friendship.
One example of the combined resources of Dowling is found in the story “Hic Jacet,” a Latin phrase meaning “Here he lies.” Without giving away too much of the plot, I can report that Dowling solves the mystery and confronts the murderer. Rather than turning him in for an old and forgotten crime, however, the priest instead grants absolution. The combination of the rational and the supernatural in these stories illuminates McInerny’s conviction that faith and reason can act together, and should, and that while crimes might be solved through reason, forgiveness is a grace, though not part of the criminal-justice system. Even when Dowling is more bystander than participant, he remains a priest. In “Anathema Sits,” for example, Dowling solves the crime almost by accident, and the story would work with some hard-boiled city detective rather than a priest as protagonist — except for the absolution of the murderer at the end. As a stylist, McInerny makes full use of the range of detective-story devices: plot twists, unlikely suspects, misdirection, and grisly discoveries. At the core of these stories, however, is a concern for plumbing the mystery of the human condition.
NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez notes this First Things article for “a window into his writing life.”
May Prof. McInerny’s memory be eternal, and may his soul rest in peace.
Thanks for the lovely tribute to Dr. McInerny, Brendan.
Many years ago I asked Dr. McInerny about what he thought of the Father Dowling TV program. He paused for a moment and then said, “Tom Bosley wanted to do it in the worst way. And they did.”
I had the honor of being one of his students. He was a unique individual. He was distinguished, suave, sharp in mind and appearance, and a man of importance in both who he knew and what he knew. And yet he was completely approachable and welcoming, even to a lowly undergrad. When speaking with him it didn’t feel as if he was lowering himself to your level, but rather that he was elevating you to his. He was a great listener as well as a great speaker, and he had a razor sharp wit. He was kind and compassionate and a man of great faith in his God and God’s creations. Certainly one of the finest men I have known. He was an inspiration and a saintly man.
Not a problem, Daniel. I should have suspected that there wasn’t a Father Dowling story with the same title as a famous Father Brown tale, “The Honor of Israel Gow.” I own both the DVD sets of the Father Brown mysteries and strongly recommend them: more info here and here.
Well, I’ve got egg on my face. I was thinking of Fr. Dowling while linking to Fr. Brown mysteries. As far as I know the only Fr. Dowling adaptation has been the Boswell version, which some think are not good at all. My mistake. I apologize for the confusion.
Wow, I had never heard of the ITV version of this show until you enlightened me, Daniel. Any idea where I can find it for sale? Also, is the EWTN show available anywhere?
Sam, I’ve not seen Tom Bosley’s take on Fr. Dowling, but the BBC Father Dowling Mysteries are available on DVD. You can pick up Set 1 and Set 2. I have heard that these are much superior to the American versions with Bosley as Father Dowling.
EWTN’s Theater of the Word has produced The Honor of Israel Gow with Kevin O’Brien as Father Dowling. TofW’s production is much more modest than the BBC’s brief 1982 series, but what TofW lacks in production values they more than make up for in energy and appreciation of source material.
Thanks for informing us of this sad event, Daniel. I haven’t read any of McInerny’s mysteries, and will have to remedy that. I enjoyed the TV series based on his most renowned character, The Father Dowling Mysteries. I wish that it were available on DVD.
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