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September 24, 2007

The bishop as detective: The Bishop Goes to the University - Andrew M. Greeley

Posted by Helen Szamuely

The Bishop Goes to the University
by Andrew M. Greeley
Saint Martin's Press, 2003; Paperback, 2007
Hardback, £18.99; Paperback, £6.99

Andrew M. Greeley's books are not as widely known in Britain as, perhaps, they ought to be. In particular we should pay more attention to the "Blackie" Ryan books, as this parish priest, later to become bishop and archbishop is, clearly, a descendant of our own Father Brown. On the whole, the Blackie Ryan novels make more sense than most Father Brown stories, wondrously good though the latter are to read.

This novel is one of the best, a highly entertaining tale of Bishop Ryan investigating the gruesome murder of an Orthodox monk who, mysteriously, seems to own a set of the "sacred crimson", the garments of a Catholic cardinal. Furthermore, the staff of the Orthodox monk is missing.

It does not take "Blackie" Ryan long to realize that the man whose head has been blown away is probably not Brother Semyon Ivanivich [the patronymic is consistently mis-spelled] Popov and that a large number of organizations are after some document or other. Again, probably. The organizations include the CIA, the FSB, the Vatican, apparently the mafia, both Italian-American and Russian, and, as Blackie finds out, a weird, ultra-right French Catholic splinter group with possible Sūreté connections. Only Mossad and MI6 are missing, possibly because they are unlikely to be concerned with matters to do with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Greeley and his hero/narrator are a little cavalier in their explanation as to how all these organizations might know about the manuscript in question or why they think it is important. There is a general air of "oh well, you know how it is with spooks".

In fact, the plot turns out to be satisfactorily simple, if a little unclear on the details, with roots going back into complicated Cold War shenanigans.

Bishop Ryan is, naturally enough, Irish-American and is given to describing himself as an unimportant and invisible auxiliary bishop while giving all kinds of examples of many people thinking otherwise. Philip Grosset says on his extraordinarily useful website, Clerical Detectives, that Father "Blackie" Ryan's Irish whimsy is quite amusing. This reader begs to differ. A little "oirishness" goes a long way and there is a very great deal in this and other Ryan novels, what with his Cardinal being Sean Cronin and his closest associate Mike Casey, not to mention all the Irish he meets in his various peregrinations through Catholic communities.

As against that, the novel, whose author is an eminent academic, theologian and sociologist as well as novelist, discusses with an attractive lightness of touch matters of Catholic theology and life within the Church hierarchy at various levels from the greatly loved and very holy youth leader Crystal Lake to the immensely powerful Monsignor Ricky Agostino in the Vatican. We hear a lot about the adjustments and readjustments of the Church in her post-Vatican II life with the Polish Pope, whose views are very different from the liberals in the West.

All that and a decent plot - this is a book to treasure. One can always mutter imprecations at Bishop Ryan as he goes into yet another bout of "oirishness".

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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