End Notes: Bless Me, Father Dowling

For a quarter of a century, my imaginative companion has been Father Roger Dowling, pastor of St. Hilary’s Parish in Fox River, Illinois. During this time, he has remained 50 years of age while I have become considerably more than that. But in the beginning, I was younger than the good father. We met quite by accident.

In the summer of 1976, Theron Raines, my agent at the time, called to suggest an idea. I had published several novels in which priests figured prominently—including The Priest and Gate of Heaven—and Raines, who was reading Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small mysteries at the time, had an epiphany: Why didn’t I do a similar mystery series with a priest in the starring role?

My reaction was mixed. I had worked my way out of an apprenticeship to the slick magazines and had written half a dozen “serious” novels that had been well-received. Mystery novels seemed a backward step on what I imagined was my rising literary career. Another consideration was the massive presence of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown series. Any priest-detective I would create would invite invidious comparison to the incomparable Brown. Finally, I didn’t know how to write a mystery.

It was saying out loud that I didn’t know how to write a mystery that settled the matter. After mulling over the characters who would make up the recurrent cast, especially the character I named the series after, I drafted what I thought were two trial stories, thinking that Raines would comment on them and help me revise them. But he sold them both as they were to Vanguard Press, and Her Death of Cold was published in 1977. I was a mystery novelist before I knew it.

Turning points in one’s writing career are seldom recognized for what they are. When I began the Father Dowling series, I had no idea how I would take to the mystery genre, and how providential my agent’s suggestion would seem in retrospect. For someone who writes as much as I do, mysteries offer a boundless welcome. If you publish a serious novel every year, people are going to treat you like Joyce Carol Oates and get a little tired of all the output. But you can write several mysteries a year and, all things being equal, be feted for it. Pullulation is the rule among mystery writers, many of whom are vague about the number of books they have actually published. They aren’t being coy; they really just don’t remember.

Soon after the Father Dowling series was established, it was jokingly suggested that I write a series about nuns. So I began the Sister Mary Teresa series that I write under the pen name Monica Quill. Subsequently, I have begun the Andrew Broom series and, most recently, a mystery series set at the University of Notre Dame, currently represented by The Book of Kills. But the Father Dowling stories are my flagship on the mysterious ocean.

When the Father Dowling stories were sold to television, the agreement was that my characters would be adapted to this medium. Viacom kept its side of the bargain, so how could a writer complain? Actor Tom Bosley is about as unlike my Father Dowling as could be imagined, yet I think he did a creditable job as a priest. The series won many new readers for the books and is still being shown on cable around the world.

As a rule, the secular media have difficulty with priests, nuns, and other religious because the secular media lack any understanding of what motivates them. “We have here no lasting city,” St. Paul writes. That “we” is all of us, of course, but it is more up front with priests. Even popular fiction like the mystery conveys a sense of what life is about, the often-unstated criteria by which the actions depicted are to be judged. Crime and punishment and sin and forgiveness are the two axes of the Father Dowling mysteries. Dowling sees a murder as a sin, and his concern is for the sinner. Captain Phil Keegan sees murder as a crime to be punished. That these are perfectly compatible viewpoints is a subtext of the series.

Since I founded the magazine Catholic Dossier five years ago, I have written a Father Dowling short story for each issue. A collection of them will appear later this year. I have also published two Father Dowlings for younger readers and plan to write more of them. And this month, the 20th Father Dowling novel will appear: Triple Pursuit. How much longer will the series run? I am aiming for 30 novels, Deo volente. Father Dowling, who isn’t a day older than when I met him, is of course always on call. I thank God that I was that fateful day in 1976.

By

Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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