Friday’s Forgotten Book: Her Death of Cold by Ralph McInerny

Recently I was checking my shelves for books I could spare in response to a frantic call from a relative who ran out of things to read when I noticed my books by Ralph M. McInerny (1929-2010). I have not thought about his mysteries for years and decided to look at them again.

McInerney was a fascinating personality. He was Professor of Philosophy, Director of the Jacques Maritain Center, and Michael P. Grace Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He was also a Fulbright scholar. He published extensively in philosophy and theology, yet I knew of him because of his considerable output in the mystery field for which he received the 1993 Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award.

No two of the bibliographies of his fiction seem to match the others completely. Wikipedia cited McInerney’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times which said he published under the names Harry Austin, Matthew FitzRalph, Ernan Mackey, Edward Mackin, and Monica Quill, which no doubt contributes to the confusion.

In general, the following list seems to be correct, if not complete:

  • 27 adult mysteries, 2 young adult titles, and 3 collections of short stories with Father Francis Dowling
  • 6 books with Andrew Broom, an attorney in a small town in northern Indiana
  • 2 mysteries featuring Egidio Manfredi, a police captain in Fort Elbow, Ohio
  • 13 mysteries set at Notre Dame with a PI, Philip Knight, and his brother, Roger Knight, a philosophy professor
  • 2 books with retired CIA agent Vincent Traeger
  • 10 stand-alone mysteries

Written as Monica Quill, 9 books and one collection of short stories with Mary Teresa Dempsey, a nun in Chicago, Illinois. Written as Edward MacKin, one book with New York police officer James Cable.

For more about McInerney’s academic career, see https://thomasaquinas.edu/about/ralph-m-mcinerny. For more about his fiction output, see Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_McInerny, Stop! You’re Killing Me, http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/M_Authors/McInerny_Ralph-M.html, and Fantastic Fiction, https://www.fantasticfiction.com/m/ralph-mcinerny/

Most people know about the Father Dowling mysteries through the television series of the same name with Tom Bosley in the leading role. It ran from 1987 to 1991. Ten years before that, however, the first book about Father Dowling was published, Her Death of Cold (Vanguard, 1977). It introduces Father Francis Dowling and describes how he came to the parish of St. Hilary in Fox River, Illinois, a community 40 miles outside Chicago.

Father Dowling revels in the work of caring for a parish most of the time. When an elderly parishioner calls him at 3:00 in the morning, however, he has to remind himself that he’s on duty around the clock. Sylvia Lowry is frightened and convinced her children want to kill her. Dowling is concerned enough to speak to her socialite children, who tell him about their mother’s erratic behavior with money. She’s recently cashed in all of her savings; her children don’t know why or what she’s done with it. When they find she is gone and her house is unlocked, they are not surprised that her car turns up later at an airport. But then her body is found on her kitchen floor. Where she has been, when she died, and how exactly she died is of intense interest to Detective Chief Phil Keegan, who confides in Dowling as the investigation progresses. The victim’s children are not at all admirable, and I found myself hoping one of them would be led off in handcuffs.

The plot offers a respectable number of red herrings and potential suspects. Authentic characters and sound Catholic theology are hallmarks of this series. With the summer ahead of us, this would be a good time for mystery readers to re-acquaint themselves with Fox River and its inhabitants. Readers who only know of Father Dowling through the television series have much good reading ahead of them.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Detection Unlimited by Georgette Heyer

How I love Georgette Heyer! Her historical romances have an honored place on my bookshelves. I read some of them so often I can quote entire sections from memory. While Heyer wrote more than 40 romances, she only wrote about a dozen mysteries, although some of her romances have a mystery running through them, see The Reluctant Widow for instance. Eight of her pure mysteries were published before the beginning of World War Two during the Golden Age. There were three stand-alones, then four with Superintendent Hannasyde. Chief Inspector Hemingway appeared in one pre-war mystery, one released during the war, and two published during the early 1950s. The fourth stand-alone was also released during the war.

Her last mystery is the fourth Chief Inspector Hemingway, Detection Unlimited (Heineman, 1953). Set in the village of Thornden, which Heyer lovingly and meticulously describes, the town sounds positively idyllic. On a hot afternoon in June, everyone who is anyone in the village is at the Cedars, where the Haswells are hosting a tennis party. The sole absentee who might have been expected to attend is the newcomer Sampson Warrenby, an upstart who is gradually edging out the long-time village solicitor and who is doing his best to work his way into the rigid village social structure. He’s managed to annoy just about all of the locals so no one misses him. The party is slowly breaking up when Warrenby’s niece runs in to announce her uncle is dead. The death is clearly not natural, and the local police lose no time in calling in Scotland Yard.

Hemingway realizes quickly that the case is awash with suspects. There’s Warrenby’s niece, whom he treated like an unpaid servant. The resident solicitor was losing his practice through Warrenby’s conniving. The squire was introducing Warrenby to village society instead of crushing his pretentious ways, most unusual behavior. The mystery author was but one of many victims of Warrenby’s verbal jabs. A couple who recently moved into the area and who has declined to enter into the district social life has aroused everyone’s suspicions.  And on and on. The late lamented did not lack enemies. Moreover, most of the suspects insist on making cases against the other suspects, to which Hemingway is forced to listen.

The leisurely told story is as much about the village as it is about a mysterious death. Heyer portrays the village in such exquisite detail that a map, often seen in Golden Age mysteries, could easily be created from it. Hemingway and his assistant Inspector Harbottle have found housing in the village inn with which Hemingway is greatly pleased, the inn’s owner having, as he says, clearly not read the Rationing Orders. The culprit was gratifyingly hard to identify, and the arrest was a result of a last-minute surprise query from Hemingway. And many scenes are enlivened by the presence of a horde of rambunctious Pekinese dogs, raised by one of the residents who cannot control them. As always with a book by Heyer, highly recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes

The crime fiction output of Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993) was only 14 novels but their influence was profound. Her work continues to be read, reprinted, and analyzed nearly 60 years after the publication of the last book in 1963, when she turned to full-time literary criticism. These two articles describe her work and its impact in some detail: The Deeply Unsettling Noir of Dorothy B. Hughes by Dwyer Murphy, https://crimereads.com/the-unsettling-existential-noir-of-dorothy-b-hughes/, and On the World’s Finest Female Nor Writer, Dorothy B. Hughes by Sarah Weinman, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/on-the-worlds-finest-female-noir-writer-dorothy-b-hughes/.

Hughes won the Outstanding Mystery Criticism Edgar Award in 1951 for her reviews published in the Albuquerque Tribune and the Los Angeles Daily News. Her last crime novel The Expendable Man was shortlisted for Best Novel in 1964, and her biography/literary analysis of Erle Stanley Gardner was shortlisted for Best Critical/Biographical Work in 1979. Hughes was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1978. 

Dread Journey (Duell, Sloan & Pierce, 1945) was the eighth crime story by Hughes. In some ways it is firmly set in its place and time, and in others it might have been based on a story ripped from last year’s headlines. Its setting is nothing new, a passenger train on the three-day trip from Los Angeles to Chicago. Other mystery writers have used trains to good effect, the much-filmed Murder on the Orient Express springs immediately to mind. There’s The Mystery of the Blue Train from Christie, another Poirot story. Christie also set the beginning of one of my favorite mysteries from her on a train, 4:50 from Paddington, alternatively titled What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! More currently, Janet Dawson is writing a wonderful historical mystery series set on the California Zephyr, a passenger train that ran from Oakland, California, to Chicago from 1949 to 1970. A leisurely trip with nothing to do but snack and look at the scenery has always sounded like a great adventure to me. But in Hughes’ hands, the train trip becomes the height of trepidation.

Katherine Agnew, the film actress of the moment, is traveling cross-country via train to her movie premiere in New York. Traveling with her is her director Vivien Spender, one of the top names in Hollywood. Agnew is Spender’s latest discovery. A few years ago he scooped her out of oblivion and made her into a household name. But now, as is Spender’s habit, he has found another beautiful face that intrigues him and Agnew is to be discarded. Only she doesn’t intend to go. Shrewder than the women who preceded her, Agnew gathered enough evidence early in their relationship to ensure that Spender would go to jail if she revealed it. It is safe with her lawyer, who has a personal grudge against Spender and would be only too happy to use the information.

Spender’s enormous ego will not allow anyone to cross him. Agnew has no intention of giving up her career. The battle of nerves between the two creates nail-biting tension that infects the entire passenger car.

Only 192 pages, this book packs a visceral punch in its ability to convey anxiety and fear. It easily holds its own with contemporary novels of psychological suspense. Publishers Weekly gave the 2019 reprint of this book a starred review.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Case of the Leaning Man by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush (1885-1973) is another prolific writer of the Golden Age who faded from view in the past 50 years. Why his books have not been reprinted while his contemporaries have been is a mystery in itself. Through the assiduous efforts of Dean Street Press, his entire catalog of 63 mysteries featuring writer and amateur sleuth Ludovic Travers, published between 1926 and 1968, is becoming available again. Numbers 41 through 50 were released on 4 May 2020.

In the nineteenth entry in the series The Case of the Leaning Man (Cassell & Co., 1938; reissued by Dean Street Press in 2018) Travers juggles multiple requests for his help. A theatrical agent is desperate to resolve a dispute between two sisters who comprise one of his top acts. He has a lucrative contract for the two, but they are suddenly declining to speak to each other, much less perform together. The loss of the contract means a great financial setback for the agent. Travers has some acquaintance with both sisters, so he agrees to sort out what he is sure is a trifling misunderstanding.

Then a visiting Maharajah is killed in an exclusive hotel, and no one saw anything or anyone at the relevant time. Superintendent George Wharton calls Travers in to help with the potential political implications and the interviews of the victim’s staff and hotel personnel. They advise Wharton and Travers, despite his royal birth and his wealth, the victim ran with a sketchy crowd and exhibited less than well-bred behavior. As the interviews are ending, the local division inspector calls Wharton to tell him that a man who had been picked up as drunk had just died in hospital and that he had the Maharajah’s wallet. Wharton and Travers tear off to the hospital to find out what they can there.

Some classic Golden Age investigative details here, such as a thorough analysis of timing and schedules and assessment of how long the trip from the hotel lobby to the Maharajah’s room might take via elevator versus the stairs. The action seemed to lag here and there because of all this, yet I found the characters appealing and the plot solid enough, if lacking in surprise. I will look for more in the series when my current TBR stack clears a bit.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Murder of Lydia by Joan A. Cowdroy

Joan A. Cowdroy (1884-1946) was an early 20th century English author who started writing general fiction and then discovered her talents for developing mysteries. Her first series detective was Chief Inspector John Gorham of Scotland Yard and then she created Li Moh, a retired detective from the San Francisco police force. The two often worked together to solve crimes.

Murder of Lydia (Hutchison, 1933; reprint Dean Street Press, 2019) opens with Mr. Moh enjoying the peace of a quiet beach in the early morning at Whitesands, an oceanside tourist haven somewhere in the south of England. He’s escaped the intolerable breakfast offered by his wife’s cousin, with whom his family is staying, and the even more painful company of the aforesaid relatives. He’s watching James Bond, a member of the local police force with whom Mr. Moh has become acquainted, take his morning swim. When Bond emerges from the ocean, he sees a neighbor’s dog absconding with his clothes. Moh kindly offers to retrieve them and makes the acquaintance of Rosalind Torrington, an ill-tempered young lady whose sullen personality makes a strong contrast with that of her older sister Lydia. Lydia is known for her stylish clothes and her charm.

Neither sister is particularly well liked by the local residents. Rosalind is believed to be deeply jealous of Lydia, partly because of Lydia’s inheritance of £500 (a little over £36,000 in 2020) and partly because of Lydia’s habit of poaching Rosalind’s admirers. So when James Bond and Li Moh discover the drowned body of Lydia later during one of Bond’s early morning swims and the death is determined to be homicide, suspicion turns immediately to Rosalind, who is arrested for murder.

The local Chief Constable calls in Scotland Yard, which brings Chief Inspector Gorham to Whitesands and a reunion with Mr. Moh, with whom he had worked before. His reconstruction of the scene, with measuring distances from the shore and the speed of the current and water depth, reminded me of mysteries that rely on careful analysis of train schedules. But he and Mr. Moh, with the assistance of James Bond, compile enough information to bring the crime home to its perpetrator and to obtain Rosalind’s release.

It is odd that this book is labelled a Mr. Moh mystery, when it’s Inspector Gorham who leads the investigation and who is front and center throughout the story. Hopefully Dean Street Press will see its way clear to reprint some of the books in which Inspector Gorham is supposed to be featured to allow a comparison.

Here’s what The Armchair Reviewer had to say about this book in February 2019:

https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2019/02/01/murder-of-lydia-1933-by-joan-a-cowdroy/

Cover shown here is from the Dean Street Press 2019 re-issue.