Book 17 of the Father Koesler series packs a wallop in the realms of ecclesiastics, ‘whogonnaduit,’ and why — by William X. Kienzle
Review by Brian Wright
It’s been quite some time since I’ve picked up a Kienzle/Koesler mystery. Frankly, I cannot remember whether I’ve read the noted original in the series, The Rosary Murders, which was made into a movie starring Donald Sutherland (as Detroit Priest Father Koesler). But I have a special connection to the author through a sister-in-law who actually worked for him when he was a parish priest at one of the old Catholic churches in Detroit.
A few years ago I read a biography of Mr. Kienzle by his widow Javan, Judged by Love. It was truly a touching memoir and really gave an insight into the man… who had been a priest (one of the good ones) and later left the priesthood because of the Catholic Church’s refusal to remarry divorcees. The person of the good priest is Father Koesler, more or less an alter ego for Mr. Kienzle.
In his mystery series, Kienzle uses Father Koesler as sort of the conscience of Detroit as much as one who works as a private detective in association with the Motor City’s finest. Kienzle is exceptional in providing a feel for Detroit, all the institutions that yet struggle for survival: police, schools, the Church, the neighborhoods, the newspapers. (Kienzle comes from a generation where the print media dominated.) He writes the people in these key professions and groups as if they still care and it still matters. (Whether or not the real Detroit died, literally, following the Coleman Young era—and for a number of reasons bigger than that grimy little politician—Kienzle soldiers on as if the Motor City still has breath and an eternal unique character all its own.)
The plot of No Man is deliciously complex, with perhaps one of the biggest background conditions conceivable: da Pope is a comin’ to town. Moreover, the Big Cheese of the Roman Catholic Church—a megapatriarchal Christian sect boasting more than a billion (1,000,000,000) members worldwide—is expected to make a pronouncement that will defend the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV) of 1968 by claiming papal infallibility for HV’s prohibition of birth control. This will be a BIG DEAL to a lot of people who practice the religion: many Catholics, especially in America, have used birth control despite the pronouncement. With infallibility, they will no longer be able to use birth control and remain in the church.
Which brings us to another common feature in Mr. Kienzle’s books: You learn a lot of the subtleties of Catholic doctrine and that, incredibly, hundreds of millions of human persons take the doctrine extremely seriously. As an outsider, growing up under sway of the Lutheran Protestant sect, I truly had no idea of the intricacies and layers of official thinking. At one point, which unfortunately I did not mark, Koesler remarks on the more-than-2,000 detailed rules that apply to the exercise of the faith. Unbelievable.
In our story, a set of these rules that prohibits birth control and only tolerates the rhythm method deeply affects one of the main characters. His wife has a heart condition for which pregnancy is likely fatal. Sure enough, the rhythm method, because of her irregular periods, does not prevent her from becoming pregnant. Abortion is out of the question, again because of Church doctrine. The couple meets with a priest, celibate of course, who encourages them to ‘have faith’ to get them through the seeming obstacles. Well the seeming obstacles turn into terminal obstacles, the wife dies and along with her, too, the fetus. The husband—long active as a Church musician and choir leader—decides enough is enough. He contemplates killing the pope. He has motive, he has means, and now he will have opportunity.
Hey, get in line, mister…
The plot fleshes out with half a dozen individuals either planning to off the Pope or wishing to off the Pope, or the Pope’s entourage—from other true-believer local Catholics to a rich Bloomfield Hills street gang with a string of heinous crimes behind them. Arrayed against the would-be plotters are chief of Detroit homicide Walt Koznicki, his lead detective Alonzo ‘Zoo’ Tully, Father Robert Koesler, and, at least in principle, a couple of topnotch Detroit Free Press reporters. Author Kienzle weaves a multipath tale in a straightforward style that leaves nothing out, but occasionally leans toward the TMI. It’s fine, I prefer an author who tells a complete logically architected story without being preoccupied with stylistic affectations.
One thing Kienzle has mastered is the integration of a wonderful life-affirming sense of humor in his prose. Here Father Koesler is telling the story—in the living room of the Koznickis—of the difficulties that can attend a priest’s services when he’s a newcomer and unfamiliar with the worshipers:
“The pastor,” Koesler continued, “was in one of those dilemmas where the only solution was bilocation. So he asked the priest-professor to take the funeral.
“Funerals and weddings,” Koesler explained, for the benefit of his lay listeners, “are particularly hazardous to a pinchhitter. These are rather intimate occasions, and it doesn’t help if the presiding priest doesn’t know anyone in the assembly.
“On top of that, the pastor asked this priest to try to involve the mourners in the eulogy.
“Now, some priests can carry off such a liturgy. Unfortunately, the seminary prof was one of those not at ease enough to generate an atmosphere where this sort of audience participation might work. But, to help out the pastor, he said he would try.
“The deceased was a woman in mid-nineties. Added to that, St. Patrick’s is in the middle of Cass Corridor. What with the advanced age, and the deterioration of the neighborhood, there were few mourners. When it came time for the eulogy, the priest tried, really tried—perhaps too hard—to get someone—anyone—to say something—anything—about the deceased.
“But they all just sat and looked at him. He kept telling the himself that it might take time for someone to loosen up. Seconds crept into minutes. Finally, in response to his now almost desperate urging, an elderly woman stood. ‘Well, for God’s sake, I thought the old fart died ten years ago.’”
I recall this quality of humor, as well, in Javan Kienzle’s biography of Mr. Kienzle, Judged by Love. He has a fine, benevolent intellect that generally knows how to get out of its own way. I’m looking forward to catching up with the Koesler series books, and possibly the movie, The Rosary Murders, which appears not to be available on DVD.
 Pope John Paul II actually visited Detroit in September 1987. (Call No Man Father was published in 1995.)