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.