Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Summer at the Lake

Sharon Wildwind

Last week I did that quintessential summer activity: spent a week with an old friend at a summer cottage.

The old friend is the Most Reverend John Blackwood Ryan, Coadjutor Archbishop of Chicago (with Right of Succession), but not Apostolic Administrator.

Before you begin wondering what the heck that title means, or how a Canadian mystery writer came to spend a week with a high ranking official of the Roman Catholic Church, let me assure you that “Blackie” is fictional. He’s one creation of the author and sociologist, Father Andrew M. Greeley. And the week we spent together was in the pages of The Bishop at the Lake, the 6th in the Blackie Ryan series.

Father Greeley not only teaches at two universities, but writes voluminously: sermons, scholarly articles, newspapers columns, an incredibly active web site and blog http://www.agreeley.com/, and over a hundred non-fiction and fiction books, from family sagas to mysteries to an inside view at a papal election. I have no idea when the man sleeps.

One of the things I like best about his writing is that he breaks the rules and gets away with it. Someone—probably a lot of someones—have said that you have to understand the rules before you can get away with breaking them. And Father Greeley understands all the rules of writing a cozy.

Rule #1: Create a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else. You have to meet the Ryan clan to believe them. They are an enormous number of them, every one of which has a long Catholic name—Blackie’s sister is Mary Kathleen Ryan Murphy, MD—and they are Irish, Irish, and more Irish. So Irish in fact that they threaten to cross over into pastiche, but Father Greeley reins them in, in time.

Rule #2: Give the amateur detective a reason to become involved in solving mysteries. Blackie’s overwhelming reason for getting involved is love. He loves his family. He loves his church. He loves God. He loves his neighbor as himself. What hurts Blackie most is another human being in distress. He is compelled to help.

Rule #3: Give the amateur detective the skill to solve a mystery. Blackie is a well-educated, thoughtful man, who is skilled at thinking and reasoning. His long history of listening to confessions had given him an ability to know a lie when he hears one. And he collects people; it’s part of that love thing. So it’s entirely reasonable that when someone needs protection, Blackie just happens to know a retired cop who’s running a security service, or when an investigation is mishandled by a lazy, rude cop, Blackie knows a dedicated, sharp cop, slightly higher in the chain of command, who is delighted to do Blackie a favor and take over the investigation.

Blackie does very little investigation himself, though he does uncover a false identity to which the police never twig.

Most of solving the mystery breaks that cardinal writing rule: show, don’t tell. Father Greeley tells. With a bit of hand-waving by the author, Blackie is allowed to sit in on the initial police interviews. When the good cop takes over from the bad cop, he gives Blackie a typed transcript of all the interviews he conducts. That’s just not the way the real world works, but who cares. By then, I was as anxious to read the statements as Blackie was.

And, in the best tradition of English mysteries of a certain age, at one point Blackie says to the good cop, “I know who did it. Go back and reread those statements. There’s a clue in there.” I was so tickled pink with myself that I’d spotted the same clue.

Oh, and that title. Coadjutor Archbishop with Right of Succession means that Blackie is an archbishop in training, as it were, and that when his boss, Sean, retires, he will step into Sean’s job. An Apostolic Administrator, on the other hand, is a temporary appointment, a caretaker who is holding down the fort until another bishop can be selected. There's nothing temporary about Father Ryan.
Writing quote for the week
A cozy starts with the premise that the world is a place of order, temporarily put out of order. It's up to the sleuth to put it in order. Hard-boiled novels start with the premise that the world is in chaos, sleuth is a loner on the mean streets.
~Rhys Bowen, mystery writer


Cait London said...

Readers like to be a part of the mystery, i.e. spotted the clue as mentioned. It's also fun to mislead them :) And then do a twist-about.

Sandra Parshall said...

Greeley writes cozies? I've never read his mysteries, but I've always had the idea his books were a little racy -- slightly scandalous stuff for a priest to produce. Books with covers featuring women in red dresses, whose zippers are half-unzipped, that sort of thing. :-) Thanks for the enlightenment.

Anonymous said...

Sandra, he deals in human foibles. People make mistakes. I've never seen the covers you describe. Bishop at the Lake, for example, has a drawing of a big summer house on it. You might be thinking of some of his Irish family sagas.