Return from the Grave

"If Dr. Fell could not cure this devil case, then perhaps Father Brown could exorcise it."
- Thackeray Phin (John Sladek's "By an Unknown Hand," from Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek, 2002)
Andrew M. Greeley was a Roman Catholic priest, a sociologist, newspaper columnist and a bestselling author of novels and non-fiction books, but the themes dominating all of his writing were religion and social issues. So how did such an author managed to find his way on to this blog, you ask? A good chunk of Father Greeley's novels are detective stories with a proclivity for impossible crimes. Yes, I'm very predictable.

Of the more than fifty novels, there are seventeen titles that make up Greeley's once popular series about his clergyman detective, Bishop Blackie Ryan, who has acquired a reputation as a debunker of paranormal phenomena and solver of locked room puzzles – one of his recorded cases concerns an impossible murder in a haunted tower room. So I assumed that would be a good place to start.

Happy Are Those Who Mourn (1995) is the seventh book in the Blackie Ryan series and begins with Cardinal Sean Cronin stating "that there will be no haunted rectories" in his Archdiocese. Apparently, the late and unpopular pastor of the parish of Saints Peter and Paul, situated in the fictional Chicago suburb of Woodridge, has apparently stirred from the grave to haunt and pester his successor, Father Peter Finnegan.

Monsignor Charles "Jolly Cholly" McInery was "the meanest, nastiest, most vicious nut" in "the whole history of the Archdiocese," but, according to his successor, McInery still strenuously objected "to being murdered in his bed" and has therefore come back to haunt the place – like switching the TV and lights on-and off. There are, however, some facts arguing against the phenomena being caused by the restless and unavenged spirit of a murdered man. One of them is that the cause of death was determined to be a massive cerebral hemorrhage and the other one is that the body was found inside a locked tower room.

So the Cardinal tasks Blackie with laying the ghost to rest by uncovering the truth behind the pastor's death and his investigation is the proverbial mixed bag of tricks.

The early chapters detailing Blackie's initial investigation of the haunted tower room has an excellent scene, which could have been plucked from either a Hake Talbot novel or a knock-off of The Exorcist (1973). Blackie is met with "a barrage of magic tricks" when he entered the room. Desk doors opened and shut on their own accord. The TV flipped on. A crucifix on the wall tilted sharply to one side and a grandfather clock chimed manically. Blackie just walked through the room and muttered, "cheap magic."

However, you should not expect too much from these ghostly activities or the locked room puzzle. Sure, the problem of the tower room has some architectural points of interest, but the crux of the trick is something that should've stayed in the nineteenth century and not reused in the twilight years of the twentieth century – except, perhaps, in a tongue-in-cheek detective story. And this was definitely not a cheerfully written, comically-styled mystery novel.

Still, this slightly updated, but still outdated, locked room artifice was far better than the explanation for the supernatural phenomena, because those so-called cheap tricks were explained away as genuine poltergeist activity. Sure, Blackie gives some halfhearted, pseudo-scientific explanation about how the "memories of the agony and horror" left a "psychic imprint on the place," but that's not the kind of explanation you want from a detective novel billed as a locked room mystery. Luckily, the impossible crime and the haunting were not the primary focus of the plot.

Essentially, Happy Are Those Who Mourn is a character-driven crime novel and Blackie is mostly occupied with attempting to unsnarl the webwork of complicated relationships and long-guarded secrets, which also involves financial shenanigans with ten million dollars of missing church funds. At times, all of these revelation of hidden, or embarrassing, secrets and relationships pushed the book in the direction of soap opera territory, but showed Greeley was capable of plot construction. Sadly, it was used on the characters instead of strengthening the "intricate, serpentine conspiracy" at the heart of the plot.

As you can probably judge by this review, I have not all that much to say about the plot and ended up feeling very indifferent about the book.

The most promising aspects of the story, such as the potential the locked tower offered, petered out into nothing and was not particularly invested in the characters. I imagine readers, who do care about all of the character-development, will be annoyed by the two messy and completely unnecessary murders crammed into the final quarter of the book, which have very little to do with the main plot-threads. I suppose Greeley only included these murders to pad out the story and reach the page-count his publisher desired.

Despite having all the ingredients of a classically-styled locked room mystery, Happy Are Those Who Mourn was really a modern crime novel masquerading as a traditional, old-fashioned detective story. So you might end up not caring for the book, or even hating it, if your taste in crime-fiction runs along the same lines as mine. However, I'll probably give Greeley a second look if I ever stumble across a copy of Happy Are the Meek (1985), because that one sounds like it could be a proper locked room mystery.

So this was the second contemporary impossible crime novel, in short succession, that was less than impressive. And just like the last time, I'll try to dig up something good to make up for this poor, lackluster review. So don't touch that dial! 


  1. From what I remember about HAPPY ARE THE MEEK, don't expend any great energy or time. Your comments on this book would pretty much apply to it as well. I am a minister as well as a detective story reader/collector and I tried Greely out of a sense of duty, which was misplaced. Also didn't think much of the Reverend Randollph mysteries of Charles Merril Smith, who was also a clergyman. Is there something about mystery-writing preachers that just doesn't make the grade? I enjoy Knox and Whitechurch, but there's this nagging feeling that they, too, could have been better. Or maybe I'm too critical...

    1. Thanks for the warning, Anon. As a locked room fanboy, I tried Greeley out of a similar sense of duty, because he was one of the few who regularly produced impossible crime novels during the eighties and nineties. It would be sad if none of them turn out to be any good.

      Ronald Knox's "Solved by Inspection" is a short story of Chestertonian brilliance, but have read none of his novels and still have to give Whitechurch the good old college try.

      Have you read Kel Richards? He's also a Christian mystery writer, specialized in impossible crimes, but, based on my reading of The Floating Body, uses the detective story as a vehicle to talk about Christianity. However, he wasn't an unpleasant writer to read. Just a slightly preachy one.

  2. So...he actually goes "Yeah, those seemingly-poltergeist activities were actually a poltergeist"? Wow, that's...bold. I guess it makes sense in the context of the book -- if he's trying to tie in a wider spiritual aspect or something -- but from the perspective you and I would approach this it's exceptionally disappointing.

    I admire your perseverence in working through these obscure 1980s and 90s authors in search of an undiscovered classic, but I'm not sure the frogs:princes ratio is high enough yet to make it likely there's much out there. The detective novel went through something of a nadir in these decades -- I read a lot of crime writing from the 90s when I first got into the genre -- and being out of vogue didn't really encourage anyone to expend a great deal of effort in crafting such a book.

    However, hope springs eternal. I'll see if I have anything in a similar vein -- 1990s, little-known author, impossible crime -- that will help with your search in the coming weeks...

    1. Well, the frogs and princes are clearly divided between the two decades. During the 1980s, you had the likes of Herbert Resnicow and Bill Pronzini writing some excellent (locked room) mysteries, but the 1990s resembled a desert landscape. You can find small patches of oasis (e.g. Paul Doherty), but generally, it was a drought period for proper, old-fashioned detective stories.

      Somehow, the 80s saw a tiny, short-lived resurgence of GAD-style mysteries. So keep that decade in mind when your deciding on whether or not you should give a modern mystery novel a short or not.

      A little-known author of impossible crime stories from the 1990s, you say? I might have something on the pile that fits the bill. I might give it a glance after I see what you're able to turn up.

    2. I need to return to Pronzini, because Hoodwink did not convince me at all. I remember very little about it despite it containing virtually no detecting and the locked rooms being...rather poor, let's say.

      Oh, I know everyone else loves him. Do you think I enjoy this weird plateau on which I find myself? If I could relax my standards just enough then I'd be drowning in books that would make me happy for years. But I am what I am, and everyone should pity me for it.

    3. If you don't like Pronzini, you could also take a look at Herbert Resnicow. Not only did Resnicow write impossible crime stories in the modern era, but he created, what could be called, large-scale locked room mysteries. I always assumed he drew upon his decades of experience, as a civil engineer, to construct his rather original locked room situations.

      By the way, you can read a testimonial here of someone who acted on my recommendation and likened The Gold Deadline to "a very solid Japanese neo-orthodox detective novel." So that might have you scrambling for his books.

    4. Just checked your blog and you already reviewed Resnicow's The Dead Room. Of course, it was a lukewarm reception!

    5. Part of why I struggle with Resnicow -- I've read The Gold Deadline, too, and was just sort of okay with it -- and Pronzini is that plot structure where you have the setup of the problem in the first two chapters and then can flip to the end for the solution without having really missed that much in the middle. A lot of personal stuff about failing businesses or rediscovering an old flame, or the pressure of trying to live up the to scrutiny of a millionaire...but nothing actually relevant to the criminal plot.

      It's just a personal taste, but something that I find hard to forgive. This is a large part of why I think puzzle novels went out of vogue, too, because they're hard to write and then steadily unpick over the actual duration of a whole book (Hoodwink in particular just has no detection at all...and it's in a series called The Nameless Detective!). Hence the misslde section swelling it up to novel length needs to contain something -- anything! -- and so largely irrelevant aspects are given an increasing significance.

      Yeah, I know, I should just enjoy it. I've tried, dammit!

    6. The middle part of The Gold Deadline is actually of (psychological) importance to the solution of the (impossible) murder, because it explains why anyone would go out of their way like that to kill someone. Just by itself, the solution, clever though it may be, is a bit outlandish and not everyone would accept it, but the characterization of the victim and revealing what role he played in his own demise is what makes it acceptable – therefore must be read to appreciate and understand the solution.

      And in other cases, I simply loved the mental boxing matches between Alexander and his own clients, the behind the scenes look at a failing business enterprise or the one about the old Dutch painters. But that's just my personal taste.

      By the way, you can learn to enjoy and appreciate these books more than you currently do. Simply slug yourself through something written by one of our modern masters of the literary crime novel. Or go Nordic! They'll make you appreciate Pronzini and Resnicow! ;)

    7. Hahahahaha, not a bad idea, that. Seriously, I'd love to get more out of the people who applied themsevles to this sort of puzzle, so anything to help me appreciate them will be considered.

      To the fjords...!

  3. The only reason to read Greeley's books -- whether they are detective novels or regular novels -- is for his views on Catholic theology. Period. His crime plots are severely lacking and will ultimately disappoint purists, especially his ventures into impossible crime plots. Much of the story and the character relationships in his mystieries are manufactured in order for Greeley to air his views or make known obscure Catholic laws. I strongly advise you leave him alone if you're looking for great mystery plots. I read three and they only got worse as I progressed. I ended my adventure with Greeley with THE BISHOP AT SEA -- just absolutely awful as a mystery and pretty lame as a diatribe on the treatment of women in the military. When I scathingly reviewed THE BISHOP AT SEA back in 2012 no one left a single comment on my blog. And there are still no comments.

    However, I happened to enjoy this one, the first "Blackie" Ryan mystery I read. Really the only reason I kept reading was for the bits about arcane canonical law like the subplot about the "contract of love" that is recognized as a true marriage.

    P.S. to JJ: Greeley is hardly obscure. He was a bestselling writer in the US for decades during his lifetime, both for his novels and his theological and sociological non-fiction. He made the NY Times lists regularly with his mainstream novels which were sort of soft boiled erotica attempting to subvert conservative Catholic views on sex.

    1. I think JJ meant obscure within the context of the genre, which is sort of true, because Greeley is not someone who's often referred to as a prolific writer of (locked room) mysteries. As a matter of fact, I probably would never have known about Greeley had you not brought him up on your blog.

      Anyway, I think I'll take your advice and just leave him alone, but it's a shame he never produced anything of note in the genre. But that's what you get when you use a genre, or medium, merely as a vehicle.

    2. Yeah, TC is sort of right -- I generally meant ivscure in the sense of people who aren't know for writing locked room mysteries -- though in this case I also meant obscure in the sense of Well, I've Never Bloody Heard of Him.

      A shame that there's little or nothing to recommend in his mysteries, but I guess that's why he's obscure (to me), right? Had he penned even a half-decent attempt he'd float around this community at leat a little bit.

      Incidentally, I have now found an impossible crime from the 1980s that a) isn't on this bog and b) could be good. All I need to do now is buy a copy, read it, review it, and we're sorted. Watch this space...

    3. Well, being well-known within the US does not always mean you have world-wide name recognition. You can even be famous in one state, or region, without ever rising to the national level. Greeley simply was one of those local celebrities who actually managed to make it, as an author, on the national stage, but remained virtually unknown in Europe.

      So that's completely understandable, but not that such a prolific mystery novelist managed to produce nothing of interest for actual mystery readers.

      Oh, about that 1980s locked room mystery... is the book in question set at a writers conference?

    4. It is not, no. It's set in a big house.

  4. The review I enjoyed, the book I shall pass.