Friday, 31 May 2013

When clergy become sleuths: some thoughts on the clerical fiction of Andrew Greeley, Harry Kemelman, and G.K. Chesterton

Having just learned of the death of Fr. Andrew Greeley (priest, social scientist, and novelist) after a few years' poor health following a brain injury caused by a road accident, I wish to spend some time reflecting on a genre in which he was one of a handful of writers:  mysteries in which the amateur sleuth is a member of the clergy.

I'm aware of three writers (as of today, all deceased) who have mastered this genre:
  • G.K. Chesterton, whose Father Brown was a British Catholic priest in the early 20th century,
  • Harry Kemelman, whose Rabbi David Small served a congregation in rural Massachusetts in the late 20th century, and
  • Andrew M. Greeley, whose Bishop John Blackwood ("Blackie") Ryan was a Catholic Auxiliary Bishop in Chicago in the late 20th-early 21st centuries.
They have a few things in common.

Their mysteries are all of the traditionally British-style "drawing room" type of mystery in which a (frequently eccentric) amateur sleuth solves a mystery which baffles the professional police using sheer intelligence and logic , rather than the traditional American-style "mean streets" mystery, featuring a hard-boiled private investigator, usually with a self-destructive lifestyle (even though both Kemelman and Greeley were Americans).

Their clerical sleuths are all clergy who work with lay people in the real world.  None are "ivory tower" academics.

Each of the three clergy have a fairly nondescript and unimpressive appearance.  They are the sort who blend into the background, and who are frequently underestimated by those who don't know them.

Each uses the logic of their profession and their tradition to seek the truth about the mystery in front of them (as each also uses the logic of their profession and their tradition to seek the truth about deeper Mysteries).  For Fr. Brown, it's the Thomist tradition.  For Rabbi Small, the logic is Talmudic.  For Blackie Ryan, the logic derives from the wisdom of the gospels, the 2nd Vatican Council, the Irish-American experience, and the dynamic and diverse cultural experience that one finds in the city of Chicago.

Each author uses his clerical sleuth to teach the public - including those who would rarely enter the doors of a church or synagogue - significant truths about the realities of their faith traditions.  Given the high levels of prejudice traditionally faced (and, sadly, still faced) both by Jews and by Catholics, they have a significant role in combatting sectarian prejudice.
  • As a Christian, much of my understanding and appreciation of Judaism was obtained through Harry Kemelman and Rabbi David Small.
  • As a "Protestant", increasingly much of my appreciation of Catholicism in the English-speaking world is courtesy of Andrew M. Greeley and Bishop "Blackie" Ryan.
I'm unaware of any living mystery writers with an ordained sleuth, which is too bad.  Alexander McCall Smith's Isobel Dalhousie is an academic ethicist, which I suppose is pretty close.  Perhaps there's room today for a mystery-solving female Anglican vicar.  (Are there any takers out there among any potential Agatha Christies?)

Nevertheless, the world is poorer without Fr. Greeley and his sensitive portrayal of the world of faith.   May he rest in peace and rise in glory.


  1. What about The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco?

    1. Good point. There are a number of books occupying the area between "mysteries" and "historical fiction" where a medieval cleric is a sleuth.

  2. How about the Father Dowling mysteries? They are written by Ralph McInerney.

  3. I didn't realize until I just looked it up, but McIrneney died in 2010.

    1. Thanks for this reminder. I remember some of the "Father Dowling" TV adaptations.

  4. And there's been a recent British TV adaptation of the "Father Brown" stories by Chesterton. This will be shown on Australian TV (ABC1) beginning Saturday evening, 6 July.


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