Father Dowling is used to unsolicited knocks on the rectory door, having done more than his share of counseling and assisting in delicate situations during his long career. So when Eleanor Wygant comes to visit Father Dowling he receives her graciously, though she is a stranger. As it turns out, members of her family are longtime parishioners of St. Hillary's, and it soon becomes clear that with family trouble brewing, Eleanor doesn't know where else to turn.
When she enlists Father Dowling's help in persuading her niece Jessica to scrap the tell-all family novel she is writing and concentrate on more earthly pursuits, the venerable priest has little idea how enmeshed he is about to become in the family's edgy interrelations. For in recent years, the family has had its share of melodrama, including a philandering patriarch, a son who left the priesthood to take up with an ex-nun, and an underachieving academic, and it's up to Dowling to piece together their shared history in the hopes of putting their demons-and a vicious, previously unknown murder-to rest.
In the hands of Ralph McInerny, one of mystery fiction's most beloved authors, Last Things is as delightful as his legions of fans have come to expect from the charming Father Dowling series.
About the Author
Ralph McInerny is the author of over thirty books, including the popular Father Dowling mystery series, and has taught for over forty years at the University of Notre Dame, where he is the director of the Jacques Maritain Center. He has been awarded the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, and was recently appointed to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He lives in South Bend, Indiana.
Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) is the author of more than fifty books, including the popular Father Dowling series, and taught for over fifty years at the University of Notre Dame, where he was the director of the Jacques Maritain Center. He has been awarded the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award and appointed to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He lived in South Bend, Indiana
Read an Excerpt
"You don't know me," she said as if he should. "I am Eleanor Wygant."
Father Dowling nodded. When Marie Murkin brought the visitor to the pastor's study she had given no indication what the call might be about. After identifying herself, the woman looked around the study at the four walls of books.
"You're quite a reader."
He shrugged. This too had seemed an accusation.
"I don't suppose you read fiction."
"Does the name Jessica Bernardo mean anything to you?"
"You think it should?"
"Not necessarily. She is my niece. She has written several novels."
"Have they been published?"
"They are highly thought of."
"But not by you."
"I didn't say that."
"Tell me about them."
"I read half of one and that was enough. I suppose all novels are like that now. She would call it honesty. Frankness. Showing people as they really are."
"And what does she think they really are?"
"Oh, I know people aren't saints. And I suppose a novelist wouldn't find it easy to write about a saint. But even we ordinary people have our redeeming qualities."
"What novels do you like?"
"Dickens." She waited for his reaction. "Jane Austen. Henry James."
This was a bit of a surprise. He would have thought she would mention the kind of edifying novel that was making a comeback in religious bookstores.
"Those authors certainly didn't write about saints."
"Of course not. But they didn't celebrate the faults of their characters as if it were good to be bad."
This was not the judgment he had expected from this woman. Eleanor Wygant was in her sixties. She was elegantly dressed, her silver hair beautifully groomed. But a perpetual frown had etched a censorious line between her brows, and her eyes were narrowed behind her rimless glasses. Father Dowling had had his share of literary conversations in this study but never one that had begun like this. Experience suggested that this was merely an overture, a way of becoming less ill at ease in the presence of the priest. But it turned out that the real problem was connected with the overture. Eleanor Wygant wanted Father Dowling to convince her niece to give up the novel she had embarked upon.
"You may wonder why I have come to you. I am no longer a member of your parish, but the Bernardos have always been. I am a Bernardo."
"Jessica simply must not write it, not the way I am sure she will."
"A writer is unlikely to take such advice from anyone."
"She certainly didn't take it from me."
"You've talked with her about it?"
"I pleaded with her. I begged." A sniffing sound. "I even tried to pay her not to write it."
"Tell me about Jessica."
"When she was a girl she talked of becoming a nun. She listened to me on that score."
"You talked her out of it."
"It was just a girlish fancy."
"Some girls have a vocation to the religious life."
Eleanor Wygant laughed. "Well, Jessica was not one of them."
"What is her new novel about?"
No doubt Thomas Wolfe's family would have tried to head him off if they had suspected what his novels would tell the world of them. The autobiographical novel that stuck to self-revelations was one thing, but the inclusion of thinly disguised friends and relatives was seldom welcomed by the victims.
"It's not that we're that much worse than others, but why parade one's dirty laundry in public?"
"Are you sure that's what she intends to to?"
A vacuum cleaner suddenly roared into life, and for a minute or two growled away in the hallway outside Father Dowling's study but then subsided with a sigh followed by a listening silence. Marie Murkin would be miffed by the length of the visit and a conversation to which she was not privy.
"You would think that brothers had never quarreled before. My husband and brother-in-law carried on a boyhood feud into middle age. I was almost surprised that they came to Joseph's funeral."
"Joseph was your husband."
"He has been dead fifteen years." Her lip trembled, and for a moment Father Dowling was afraid she was going to cry. The tap on the door was almost welcome. Marie looked in.
"Should I make tea?"
Father Dowling never drank tea. This, like the vacuum cleaner, was a ruse to free the pastor from a visitor overstaying her welcome.
"What a lovely idea," Eleanor Wygant said.
"Is there any lemon pie left?" Father Dowling asked.
"I have some cookies," Marie said.
Eleanor Wygant brought her hands together in almost girlish delight. "I love oatmeal cookies."
So did Captain Phil Keegan, which is why Marie persisted in baking them despite the pastor's indifference to what he ate.
"Are you having tea, Father?" Marie asked sweetly.
"Not this time."
"Why don't I serve in the kitchen then?"
"Just call when you're ready."
If Eleanor Wygant had any sense that she was getting the bum's rush from Marie she gave no sign of it.
"Dare I hope, Father?" She sounded like someone in the novels she preferred.
"Why don't I just say this. If Jessica cares to stop by the rectory I will talk with her about her new novel."
Some minutes later Marie led Eleanor off to the kitchen, where she would doubtless try to pry out of her the purpose of her visit. As Father Dowling found out after the visitor had gone, it turned out that she already knew a good deal about the Bernardo family.
"There's only one left in the parish. Of course the name doesn't ring a bell with you. Can they even be regarded as parishioners? You've never seen an envelope from them in the collection."
"That is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for being a parishioner."
Marie ignored this seminary jargon. "She comes to Mass anyway, the little woman in the green babushka, seven thirty on Sunday, most weekdays. Huddles in the back as if she's half ashamed to be there."
Father Dowling had a vague image of a little old woman in a green babushka. It was not his practice in saying Mass to keep eye contact with the congregation in the manner of an emcee. "How old?"
"About this one's age, Eleanor."
"Did you think she was a little old woman too?"
"How old do you think she is?" Marie asked.
"I've no idea."
"Add ten years. Some widows take better care of themselves than wives."
"I've noticed that."
Marie squinted at him. Her status had altered from grass to real widow, but she was the green babushka type nonetheless. "I hope I look half as good at her age."
Thin ice, this. As her employer Father Dowling knew the date of Marie's birth but that far-off event did not seem far-off in some of Marie's self-descriptions.
"I suppose having children has something to do with it."
"Nonsense. But about the Bernardos ..."
The little old woman in the green babushka was Margaret, wife of Fulvio and mother of Jessica and two sons.
"One's a priest."
"Some little order. He's on leave in California."
"And the other son?"
"He teaches at St. Edmund."
Once rival liberal arts colleges established by religious orders great and small had formed a chaplet around the city of Chicago, but if they vied for students they cooperated in other things, among them dances that provided opportunity for meeting the possible partner of one's life. Coeducation had come to these campuses late, during the tumultuous sixties, the decade in which they began the drift from their original moorings. It was not that they repudiated their religious past; it simply became less and less relevant as nuns and priests disappeared from the staffs, lay presidents were appointed, hiring was done on a basis indistinguishable from that of other lesser institutions, which now were enjoying a buyer's market as more and more people poured out of graduate school into a shrinking job market. In these circumstances Andrew Bernardo, with a mere master's and not even an ABD, all but dissertation with class work for the doctorate completed, might have been grateful for his tenured position at St. Edmund's, but in the manner of academics he engaged in pro forma grousing about the students, the salary, his class load, and the fact that he had to share an office with a colleague who seemed never to bathe. This necessitated keeping the window cracked even in the dead of winter and having a small air cleaner beside his desk whose steady hum had the added advantage of discouraging conversation. Foster was a slovenly giant who chain smoked and declaimed Shakespeare aloud at the least provocation, favoring the historical plays. No student visited him twice, if so often.
"Tell him to take a bath," Andrew urged Anne Gogarty, the chair of the department.
"You're as close to him as anyone."
"That's my complaint."
"It would come more easily from you than anyone else."
"It should be an official demand."
"It's not in the manual."
The faculty manual was a constant point of reference, the basis for grievances that could lead to the formation of a committee of the faculty senate and months of talk followed by inaction. Bathing by the faculty was not a requirement. That Foster was a philosopher, given to unintelligible mumbling about possible worlds' ontology, seemed only fitting. The man could not keep his own body clean, but he spoke of the universe as a personal possession. Several times Andrew had edged close to the sensitive topic.
"This room is so hot."
"It's that machine you insist on running all the time."
"That has a cooling effect. And it cleanses the air."
Foster lit a cigarette from the burning stub of another. Andrew never complained of Foster's smoking; the clouds of exhaled smoke did something to neutralize the effect of being downwind from his aromatic office mate.
"Do you ever exercise?" he asked Foster on another occasion.
"Not on purpose."
"You should, you know."
"What kind of a should is that?"
"How many kinds are there?"
A mistake. Foster launched into a lecture on the modalities of the deontological. Physical exercise seemed to be a mere hypothetical imperative. Andrew lauded the new wellness center that had been built by Alloy, the president, among whose achievements was to declare the campus both a smoke-free and nuclear-free zone. But faculty offices had been grandfathered, and Foster was free to puff himself to an early grave.
"The pool is magnificent," Andrew said. "Swimming is a marvelous tonic." The thought of Foster clouding the chlorined water of the pool was ambiguously attractive.
"I nearly drowned when I was a kid."
Was that the origin of his dread of water? "No one ever drowned in a shower."
"I thought you said pool."
"Who says pool says shower," Andrew replied boldly.
"Who is who?"
"The Marquis of Queensberry."
"You are being facetious."
That was as close as he had come to recommending personal hygiene to Foster. Of course Andrew had to meet his students elsewhere, usually at a table in the cafeteria. There he sat on the morning that he had received an early telephone call from his Aunt Eleanor.
"Jessica intends to write a novel about the family."
Jessica's small success as a novelist was the heaviest cross Andrew bore. He taught creative writing but had published only two stories, in quarterlies that had never made it through their first year. From sophomore year of high school he had dreamt of being a writer, but by senior year he had published nothing in the school magazine, the Penna, except one short essay on Scott Fitzgerald. Meanwhile, Jessica, two years his junior, dashed off sonnets, a verse play, and short stories that caught the attention of the Chicago Tribune because their older brother, Raymond, had sent them to the literary editor. She began to receive inquiries from literary agents. Andrew adopted a condescending attitude toward his sister's writing. She herself seemed to regard her own success as a bit of a joke. She had published a series of poems the first lines of which were taken from famous pieces: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day"; "She lived among untrodden ways"; "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking." It seemed a species of cheating, trading on the achievements of others. The one beginning "Where the bee sucks, there suck I" was vetoed by the faculty advisor, an effete chemist who fancied himself a renaissance man and dismissed Hemingway as a primitive. Andrew longed to be a writer like Hemingway or Fitzgerald, a celebrity, his name on everyone's lips. Now he had to contend with the fact that the name Bernardo seemed owned by Jessica so far as writing went.
"You try too hard," she said to Andrew when she found an unfinished story of his.
"Writing should not come easily."
"It does for me."
Jessica was beautiful; even Andrew saw that. Thick yellow hair, an olive complexion, full lips, and almond eyes that mesmerized even in dust jacket photographs. She did not need fiction in order to be popular, yet she had never married. Sometimes he felt that she had been more affected by Raymond's defection from the priesthood than anyone, even their parents.
"I'd become a nun if I could find a convent that wasn't out of Boccacio."
Hope flared up in him. If she had a vocation, perhaps to an enclosed order, she would put away her pen and fade from the field. He had come to believe that her success was the main cause of his writer's block. Jessica scoffed at the idea of writer's block.
"Just do it, for heaven's sake. It's just words on a page, one after the other."
He had pored over her novels in search of flaws. Where No Storms Come, her first, had been a bildungsroman, but in it she had invented a family as different from their own as imaginable. Her second, We Waited While She Passed, was set in a nursing home and drew on a summer job as a nurse's aide. He told her that in its way it reminded him of The Poorhouse Fair. She didn't know it. She claimed to read very little.
"What's Updike?" She gnawed on an imaginary carrot and gave an imitation of Bugs Bunny. Perhaps he was meant to be a critic, Edmund Wilson rather than Fitzgerald. He imagined a monograph on the fiction of the twenties and thirties but despaired at the thought that it had been done already a thousand times.
Across from him at his table in the cafeteria sat Mabel Gorman, a student whose prose had the polish of someone twice her age. She was an unlovely girl, thick black hair that rose wildly from her narrow head, a unisex body that seemed more limbs than torso. She sat sideways in her chair like a pretzel, legs crossed, hugging herself, blowing hair out of her eyes.
"I like your story," Andrew said.
Her smile was her best feature, toothy and full, radiant. "Thank you."
"I think you should submit it for publication." Andrew was the faculty advisor for Scriptor, the renamed student literary annual.
She had sent it to The New Yorker. Jessica's first published story had been in The New Yorker. It turned out that this was no accident.
"I didn't realize she was your sister."
"Bernardo is not that common a name."
"But someone so famous!"
His cross bit into his shoulder. It was cruel that even his own students looked past him to Jessica.
"That's a tough market to crack."
All his own submissions to The New Yorker had come back, in Thurber's phrase, like a serve in tennis. He had the sudden certainty that Mabel's story would be accepted. It was a soulful vignette about a young girl who continued to collect dolls into womanhood, the drama subdued, pregnant with suggestion, a story that clung to the imagination long after being read. Andrew had studied it, wondering what the secret was. Was he doomed to become the pupil of his pupils?
"Your class is the best I have ever taken," Mabel said, her smile coming and going uncertainly.
Students were given to unsolicited praise, usually when finals approached, but Mabel seemed to be speaking from the heart.
"What else are you taking?" Did he want to know what the competition was, in what field he was first? Mabel's smile disappeared.
"Do you know Professor Cassirer?"
"What do you think of him?"
Her eyes widened, she looked over both shoulders, she leaned toward him. "Is he crazy?"
It is a vice peculiar to the academic to elicit criticism of colleagues from students, but Mabel poured forth her view of Cassirer unprompted.
Excerpted from "Last Things"
Copyright © 2003 Ralph McInerny.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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