The Prudence of the Flesh
I have a confession. I enjoy mystery or detective stories even more than
science fiction. As such, I remember watching one (and only one) episode of
the Father Dowling Mysteries on television. All that I recall of the episode that I saw was that it seemed an even paler example of the genre that even Murder, She Wrote. As such, when approaching Prudence, I was not at all sure that would finish, let alone enjoy the book. Fortunately, Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling has little in common with that of the television series.
Without giving too much of the plot away, the story involves a laicized priest who is accused of having fathered a child before he was allowed to give up his vocation. As one might guess, this theme gives McInerny reason to muse over the recent sex scandals that have so torn at the Roman Catholic Church of late. And muse he does with virtually every character whether they be priests, lawyers, police officers, or even librarians. One might—at first—see these rambles as distractions; they are, however, the commentary behind what unfolds. I haven given you enough to entice you? I am so sorry, but McInerny does such a fine job of letting the story unfold that anything I might say about what happens and who is involved would be distraction. Suffice it to say that Prudence will entice both those that enjoy attempting to solve a mystery ahead of time and those that simple enjoy how human beings move into and through the less savory aspects of their condition.
I am not even going to tell you whether Prudence even includes a murder because (a) McInerny follows Christie’s Observation and (b) I had so much fun waiting before I knew whether or not the mystery would include one. The delight in McInerny’s approach to the detective story is that he follows Agatha Christie’s observation (rarely employed by Christie herself) that the crime—including murder—is the end-point of the story. It is what comes before that leads to the crime that is of real interest. Father Dowling is interested not primarily is solving a crime (indeed most of the events in the Prudence are outside his immediate view) but in understanding the stories behind the lives of those with whom he comes in contact and to find in those stories something that leads to redemption and reclamation. Father Dowling is thus a very atypical detective, and those who want a sleuth to track down clues and race on to some dramatic confrontation had best look elsewhere. Father Dowling is about letting the intersecting stories of very different lives play out.
McInerny is a breezy writer. This is not to say that he is not above a little elitism. Casual references to classical literature abound and Latin (not surprisingly) gets thrown in for good measure. Still, it was fun—and easy—to learn what phrases such as “Even Homer nods,” mean and there is little lost for those who don’t wish to make the effort. Prudence is an enjoyable read. There is no dense text here, no underlying meanings to ponder. The imponderables come from the events themselves told plainly with relish and care for all the characters.