Books: The Wisdom of Father Dowling

November 7, 2012

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.

Books I Didn’t Expect to Like

September 30, 2011

It’s handy how libraries have those stickers that tell you which books are sci-fi, westerns, mystery, romance, etc. I avoid the westerns and the romance novels, and I used to avoid the mysteries. But don’t ask me why I steadfastly avoided them – it’s a mystery to me now.


What’s strange is that I can’t remember anymore why I thought I wouldn’t like mysteries. Did I think they’d be scary? Boring? Silly? Poorly written?

What changed my mind wasn’t any particular book or books, as far as I can remember, but the fact that I needed a steady supply on books on tape to listen to while I rode my exercise bike. By excluding mysteries, I limited myself to a much smaller number of books. There are a lot of mysteries on tape (these days, on CD), and once I discovered how much I enjoyed them, it gave me a huge number of new books to listen to and enjoy.

Mysteries actually turned out to be the best books to listen to while riding the exercise bike, because, more than other books, they pushed me to get myself out of bed to get further in the book and get to the bottom of the mystery. Some of my favorites have been the Mrs. Pollifax books by Dorothy Gilman and the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. These are so good that I read all the books in print that I couldn’t find on tape at the library. They’re also the only mysteries I’m inclined to reread, as they’re interesting for more than just finding out what happens.

I’ve listened to several of Mary Higgins Clark’s mysteries, though I lost interest in her books after a while. I enjoyed several books by Patricia Cornwell, and everything I listened to by Tony Hillerman. Other authors I have enjoyed (and would listen to more of their books if the library had them) are David Baldacci, Kathy Reichs, Phillip Margolin, and P.D. James. (One I haven’t enjoyed enough to listen to more than one title by is Sue Grafton.)

Right now I’m listening to one (purchased from the library when they removed it from their holdings) by Elizabeth Peters. I enjoy it, but I have to admit that it’s not gripping enough to get me eagerly out of bed in the morning to find out what comes next. Fortunately the next one in line (similarly purchased from the library) is by David Baldacci. As I remember, his books are real page-turners – or in this case, would that be pedal-turners?

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Books: A Murderous Yarn

November 14, 2010

It’s interesting, the roundabout way one can become interested in a new author or type of book. Several weeks ago, I was looking for an audiobook on CD at the local library, and my 11-year-old son, impatient to leave, decided to help me. He suggested one book, but I pointed out that it way pretty long, and I have trouble finishing an audiobook much longer than 6 CD’s before it’s due back at the library.

After a few more tries, he picked up Knitting Bones by Monica Ferris. It was exactly 6 CD’s, so I agreed to take it, although I had never heard of Monica Ferris and wasn’t sure I was interested in a book in which knitting featured prominently. It was in fact fairly interesting, although my car’s CD player decided to malfunction before I could finish the book. (It probably just needs cleaning but I haven’t gotten around to that.) I looked to see if the library had the same book in traditional book format, but they didn’t.

Having started the book, however, I was in a mood for reading something similar. So I browsed through the cart of paperback novels. I had gone through nearly all of them when I found A Murderous Yarn by Monica Ferris. This one is earlier in the series, which was just as well, I decided. (I’ll get to know the main characters better, and don’t have to worry that I’ll find out who the murderer was in the later book.)

The series belongs to a subgenre called the cozy mystery. As wikipedia explains,  

Cozy mysteries are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humourously. … The heroes of such stories are usually amateur detectives who often have a college degree and use their life experiences as a tool for solving crimes. … There is usually an array of eccentric supporting characters, who provide light relief and are generally very likeable.

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Books: Sparkling Cyanide

October 4, 2010

For years I have told myself I really ought to read at least one book by Agatha Christie. After all, she’s supposed to be the most popular mystery writer of all time. I had seen references to her as the Queen of Crime, and had heard the names of Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple, but somehow I never got around to reading any of her novels. I was afraid they would seem somewhat stodgy and old-fashioned, compared to the mystery novels I am accustomed to reading.

I don’t think I had even finished the first paragraph of Sparkling Cyanide before I realized how wrong I had been. I was immediately caught up in the story, puzzled by the mystery at its center, and fascinated with the varied characters who play an important role in the story –  nearly all of whom are suspects. I will say that the insight that helped solve the mystery seemed a bit questionable (can’t say more than that without spoiling it), and I see other readers have had the same complaint. But it hardly spoiled the story for me. 

I do note that comments by some readers point out that this particular novel is different from other Christie novels. So will the others lack whatever it is that made Sparkling Cyanide sparkle for me? Or will they be even better? I guess there’s only one way to find out.