As the University of Notre Dame football team wakes up the echoes, it seemed like a good time to read a few of the late Notre Dame professor Ralph McInerny’s Notre Dame mystery novels. I was immediately hooked. Through Amazon I was able to purchase all 13 of them (most are out of print) this fall and am about to finish reading the final one.
Obviously these aren’t lengthy books (averaging 200 to 250 pages), and it is not like reading the books for which Professor McInerny is academically most famed. He was America’s best-known Thomas Aquinas expert and author. He also wrote some 40 Father Dowling mysteries.
Beginning with “On This Rockne” and ending with “Shamrock,” the format is basically the same: The core story is introduced, as are the Knight brothers — Phil the detective and his 300-pound brother, Roger, who holds the Huneker Chair of Catholic Studies at Notre Dame and aids him in solving the mysteries. At almost the exact midpoint of each book a murder is committed.
The second half of each book is the solution for which there are at least four very plausible suspects. One book has the last-minute surprise in the second-to-last sentence of the book. No solution is a shock, and all have adequate clues: no “air drop” murderers. The books are very logical. But the murder really isn’t the point of these books, though they add some suspense. It’s the joy of the journey.
These mysteries are a blend of an entertaining story, in a Notre Dame setting,
written by an author who has excellent command of the English language and who randomly educates through mixing facts and humor with a conservative worldview.
As a combined set, they are an education on the politics of academia from McInerny’s perspective, exaggerated for literary effect. The faculty senate is dominated by liberal professors who can’t teach and mostly want to write obscure papers to present to professors from other places. They hate Notre Dame, especially football, and its Catholicism most of all. Some of the administration figures are presented in a less-than-bumbling way, but if Father Carmody didn’t keep coming out of retirement from the Holy Cross House to secretly bail them out, Notre Dame would have collapsed.
The titles are puns off the themes, such as “Emerald Aisle,” in which two students get engaged, book the Sacred Heart church for a wedding years ahead and separate. The mystery starts when both want to use the hard-to-book reservation with different mates.
“Irish Gilt” centers around a proposal to honor Father John Zahm, who the book notes came to Notre Dame from Huntington when he was 15. You indirectly learn about the life of Zahm, after whom Zahm Hall is named.
Kirkus Reviews said: “Most readers will be converted to die-hard Notre Dame fans and possibly Catholicism.” That is a bit extreme, but these books would add greatly to your knowledge of both.