Books: The Wisdom of Father Dowling

The Wisdom of Father Dowling is actually the second volume of Father Dowling short stories I have read. The first was The Compassion of Father Dowling, which I came across in the “new books” section of the library. I thought the name Father Dowling sounded vaguely familiar, though I didn’t recognize the author, Ralph McInerny. Now that I have heard of him (First Thoughts has an article summing up his life) and read some of his stories about Father Dowling, I look forward to reading more, especially the novels.

These stories are unlike most mysteries I have read in that relatively little of the story is devoted to tracking down clues. Father Dowling is, first and foremost, a priest, and he spends his time counseling parishioners, celebrating Mass, and whatever other duties go with the Catholic priesthood (something I know very little about). To the extent that he goes out to talk to people who may know something about the crime, it is to minister to their souls, or to get information that will help him better minister to someone else. Often, it seems that the people come to him, not to help solve the crime but to get relief from a guilty conscience.

Each story stands alone, as best as I can tell. That is, there are no references in one story to the events of another story, so there’s no way to assign them to any chronological order. I find myself wondering just how plausible it is that one parish priest could encounter so many murders among people of his flock or connected to them. Of course, the same is true of a lot of mystery series, though usually they try to give an explanation for this (easy when the protagonist is either a police or private detective) or at least acknowledge how unusual it is.

I have read reviews saying the stories are not very exciting – which is true. Whether because of the (short) length of the stories or because it is simply McInerny’s style, there is little suspense, though there certainly is mystery. The focus is more on the people than the storyline, but I have always liked stories where the characters matter at least as much as the plot. Naturally in a short story there isn’t a great deal of character development, and there were none that I felt sorry not to learn more about (as often happens in novels), but the characters are interesting.

I don’t know if the intended audience was people who had already read novels featuring Father Dowling, but I found some things a bit confusing until I had read several stories and figured out more details about the main characters and the town. McInerny also has a habit of tucking in brief flashbacks with no real transitions, which confused me at first but I got used to it. There is some understated humor, which I enjoy, though also some that I didn’t quite get (that is, I suspected there was humor involved but I wasn’t getting the point).

I was interested to note, on the flyleaf, that McInerny was a scholar as well as a novelist, and a prolific and successful writer in both arenas. I see he wrote quite a few books dealing with the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, which doesn’t greatly interest me, but I might try something like his A Student’s Guide to Philosophy. First, though, I’ll read one of his novels – of which our library has quite a few.

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