Another cleverly constructed and witty installment from one of the genre's masters, The Book of Kills is a delightfully sinister stroll through the hallowed halls of academia.
Prior to the kidnapping of several school administrators and the desecration of headstones in the Cedar Grove Cemetery, the University of Notre Dame's biggest worry had seemed to be this season's challenging football schedule. But these "pranks" are getting more and more serious. Then, Orion Plant, an eccentric scholar in the history program, began attracting negative media attention by claiming the university founder, Father Edward Sorin, stole the land on which the school sits from Native Americans. All in all, it's more than the board of trustees can handle.
A potentially costly lawsuit, embarrassing publicity, and a scandalous half-time prank broadcast on national television, cause university chancellor Father Bloom to turn to detective Philip Knight and his brother, brilliant philosophy professor Roger Knight, for help. But just as the brothers dig into the investigation, the scholar turns up dead, an Indian headdress wrapped around his bloody head. The South Bend police department is stumped, leaving the Knights once again to bring the killer to justice.
About the Author
Ralph McInerny, a winner of the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, is the author of over thirty books, including the popular Father Dowling mysteries, most recently Grave Undertakings and the Andrew Broome mysteries, most recently Heirs and Parents. He has taught for over forty years at the University of Notre Dame, where he is the director of the Jacques Maritain Center. 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
THE TROUBLE BEGAN ON AN
October Saturday at the log chapel.
Two stretch limos came up the road behind Bond Hall, which housed the architecture department, and parked. Out of them poured a wedding party. The bride wore a traditional white gown, the bridesmaids were in blue, the men in formal attire. The groom was an alumnus, the bride his childhood sweetheart, and he was fulfilling an undergraduate dream of being married in the log chapel on the Notre Dame campus, a venue in even more demand than Sacred Heart Basilica, the university church. Father Burnside, who had been rector of the groom's undergraduate dorm, was to meet them at the chapel door.
But there was no sign of the priest.
The chapel door was guarded by two men done up in traditional Indian garb.
"Have you seen a priest?"
They did not get out of the way. The best man, another alumnus, had made the football team as a student, a tight end who had played a total of eight minutes in a game that had been won already in the first half. He stepped forward, expanded his chest, and explained that a wedding was scheduled.
"The priest is our prisoner," one of the Native Americans said. "We are reclaiming our property."
* * *
In Cedar Grove Cemetery, the sexton was appalled, themore so because he had not noticed the outrage when he came to work that morning, though he must have driven right past the toppled grave markers. One had stood six feet tall and when it fell had done damage to a number of neighboring graves. The sexton called for his crew to make a thorough reconnaissance to see if there were other instances of vandalism.
He assumed that it was vandalism, kids from town in the momentary grip of adolescent madness who had thought pushing over gravestones made some profound statement to the universe. There were three desecrated graves, if that was not too heightened a way of putting it. The sexton did not think so. He used the term five times in speaking to campus security. To the provost he spoke of sacrilege.
Cedar Grove Cemetery was as old as the university itself. It was located on Notre Dame Avenue, as good as on the campus, just south of the bookstore and Eck Alumni Center. For some years there had not been a single unspoken-for grave site in Cedar Grove, but more land had been acquired to the west when the golf course was relocated and now a fortunate few more could look forward to awaiting the last trump in the company of the earliest generation of South Bend.
It was Roger Knight, the Huneker Professor of Catholic Studies, who later noticed a pattern in the vandalism.
Coquillard, Pokagon, Pokagon's son.
Old Father Carmody nodded. "Contemporaries of Father Sorin." Edward Sorin was the founder of the University of Notre Dame, a visionary French priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross who had found a small trading community on a bend in the Saint Joseph River when he came to claim the property he had bought for what he grandly called his university. "Frenchmen like himself," Carmody added.
"Not entirely, Father. Some of them had Indian blood as well. And Pokagon was a chief."
Meanwhile, Father Burnside had been released from custody and the wedding in the log chapel went on as planned. But when the happy couple and their party returned to their rented vehicles to be driven away to the Morris Inn for the reception they had to pass between ragged rows of half a dozen surly men all dressed up as Indians.
"What's going on?"
On the following day, Wednesday, the university chancellor did not return as scheduled from a trip to Hong Kong. A call to the Michiana Airport revealed that he had arrived in South Bend on the appropriate flight.
"Johnny!" said Miss Trafficant impatiently. Anita Trafficant was the chancellor's secretary and Johnny the chancellor's driver. There was enmity between her and Johnny. The chauffeur had an annoying habit of acting as if he worked directly for the chancellor and was on an equal footing with Miss Trafficant! She would not have been human if she did not relish the thought of scolding him for whatever had happened. But he did not answer his car phone.
Miss Trafficant believed in scheduling. Her success at her job depended in large part on the efficient way in which she arranged the chancellor's day. Without her precise allocation of his time, he could not have done half of what he did. She had allowed an hour and a half from the time of his arrival at the airport to the first appointment of the day. Father Bloom should be well rested from his long flight in business class across the Pacific.
Two hours passed and the chancellor had not arrived on campus or come to his office. The tenth call to Johnny's car got an answer. His speech was slurred and he made little sense.
"Have you been drinking?"
The answering obscenity was sufficiently garbled that she could honorably ignore it. She managed to learn where he was.
"You were supposed to pick up Father."
There was a call on her other phone. She cut off Johnny and took the call.
"This is the Blue Cloud Nation. The chancellor of Notre Dame is our prisoner. Stand by for further instructions."
The phone went dead.
The consensus in the lounge of Corby, the building where lived priests who were not rectors of residence halls, was that it was a student prank. Johnny had been slipped a mickey and the students who met the chancellor's plane hit upon the politically incorrect excuse that Indians had kidnapped him in an effort to reclaim the property on which the university stood. True, this theory had been floated recently in an allegedly humorous column in the student newspaper, but then it was difficult to distinguish intended from unintended humor in that publication.
"They got the idea from the log chapel incident."
"Or the vandalism in Cedar Grove."
"What if they're all connected?"
The speaker had held up one hand as he spoke, but then immediately let it drop to the arm of his chair.
In the faculty senate the Quinlan Resolution was being debated. If passed, it would become the sense of the senate that the administration should appoint a committee to meet with the Blue Cloud Nation in order to review with utmost seriousness their claim that ancestors had been bilked out of the land on which Notre Dame stood.
"It doesn't matter," one phlegmatic senator observed. "There isn't a patch of earth that was not at one time inhabited by someone other than those currently inhabiting it."
"These people weren't even alive at the time."
"Their quarrel is with Sorin."
"So are their ancestors."
"It's a matter of justice."
"You want to give the place back to the Indians?"
"If they'll have it."
"If it is theirs it would not be a gift."
An observer from the Observer thought that the senate as a body was inclined to think that Notre Dame had been built on a foundation of injustice and crime.
A video of the captive chancellor was delivered to Corby Hall. He looked disheveled and unfocused, but then he wasn't wearing his glasses. He seemed to be reciting when he spoke.
"I have pledged to correct anyy injustice that has been done against the Blue Cloud Nation by the University of Notre Dame."
His eyes lifted to the camera and filled with tears. His lower lip trembled. "I'm sorry," he said.
"He didn't know what he was saying."
"So what's new?"
"He was just reading words written for him."
"So what's new?"
"You can't just wish away an institution that has been situated on this land for over a century and a half. What would the Indians do with the land?"
"They'd sell it."
"That's the answer! Give it back to them and then we buy it right back. If all they want is money ..."
This turned out not to be true. They wanted the land. They wanted the lakes. They wanted the woodland. They wanted their old burial ground back.
"Where is it?"
"It has yet to be located."
IN A CONFERENCE ROOM IN
Decio a few days before the trouble began, the graduate committee of the history department was in session. The first order of business was the fate of Orion Plant, a doctoral candidate.
"We've already extended him two times."
"Who's his director?"
Professor Otto Ranke raised his hand but not his eyes. He had lied for Plant too many times and he was not inclined to do so again. The inevitable question was asked.
"Has he made progress on his dissertation?"
"Is there any reason why the rule should not be applied?" The rule was that a doctoral candidate must submit his dissertation for reading and defense within seven years of getting approval of his topic. Plant's dissertation had been approved eleven years ago. Ranke was not only the director, he was the only survivor of the original committee. All the others were retired or dead. Or both.
"The rule should have been applied earlier."
A vote was taken. The decision was unanimous. Sencil, the director of graduate studies, said he would convey the decision to Plant, but Ranke said that task must be his. The others might rightly feel that they had condemned someone in absentia. Had they even known Plant? Ranke felt that he had just bade adieu to his golden years. Plant was the last candidate who had sought to do a dissertation under his direction.
"What was the topic anyway?"
"The relocation of Indians to the southwest."
The love of learning takes many forms. In some, it is a pure gemlike flame that warms and does not consume the student. In others, it is a means to ameliorate the human condition, first of all in their own case. In a few, as for Nietzsche, it is a path to power for whom knowledge becomes a weapon. A blunt weapon in the case of science, a remote and transcendental one in the case of philosophy, but subtle and sure in the case of history. From the outset, Orion Plant had seen history as revenge upon the present.
As a boy in Toledo he had spent hot summer afternoons in the attic of his grandmother's home, turning over the pages of old albums and ledgers, pondering the facts entered on the flyleaves of old family bibles. He was fascinated, a question grew in him, he followed the spoor of possibility. It was there in the attic with lungs filled with dusty air and sweat running down his broad freckled face, that he had discovered he was not his parents' child. His family was not his family. He had not even been legally adopted. His apparent parents had taken him in when a neighbor went on a trip. The neighbor never returned. With time, the family gave Orion their name and neglected to tell him he was not one of their own. After a moment of vertigo and a pang of sadness, Orion found the discovery oddly exhilarating. What he would learn to call research was a means of overturning the apparently real world.
Acquiring the academic credentials to pursue the surprising secrets of the recorded past as a lifetime task turned out to be more demanding and less interesting than Orion had supposed. But he persisted. He got an undergraduate degree at a small college in his native state and was then admitted to graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame. When he left Toledo he metaphorically shook its dust from his sandals. At Notre Dame he took with diminishing interest the required number of courses. Availing himself of the unofficial archives kept by generations of graduate students in history, he passed the written and oral examinations and was admitted as a candidate for the doctorate. Resentfully prowling through the past of the area, he chose a topic and it was approved. Professor Ranke nodded sagely through clouds of the sweet smoke rising from his pipe. Orion would chronicle the forced march of local Indians to Kansas just prior to the founding of Notre Dame. He would focus on the martyred devotion of Father Petit, who had accompanied the Indians on their death march. The benign official version of the transfer of the land to Father Sorin invited skepticism.
"He's buried in the crypt of Sacred Heart." Ranke sent up his words in little puffs of smoke. Orion looked at his director impassively. He had nodded through the professor's boring lectures, but now his estimate of his guide sank further. Orion had found the burial plot of Father Edward Sorin in the community cemetery located just off the road that led from the grotto to the highway across which stood Saint Mary's College, the sister institution of Notre Dame.
"Father Sorin?" The question was meant to make Ranke's ignorance explicit.
"No, no. Petit."
Orion thought Ranke might be wrong at least in this, but he was not. This oddly increased his disguised contempt for his director. He began his research.
He had been at it three years when he met Marcia. She worked in the Huddle, preparing stir-fried concoctions to order. He might not have noticed her if she had not, surreptitiously but making sure he noticed, put a double portion of chicken in his order as she began to cook it. The second time this happened he read the name on the plastic badge she wore.
Her pained expression told him he was not the first to make a bad joke of her name.
"Everybody does it."
"I'm Orion Plant."
Those behind him in the line were beginning to mutter, but Marcia was practiced in antagonizing customers. He pushed on, paid, and took a table. Some minutes later, minus the plastic snood she wore over her hair while stir-frying, Marcia joined him.
"I asked who you were, that's how I know."
And so it began. She was a substantial young woman but her face was pretty, made even prettier by the adoring expression in her eyes. He was not used to the deference she showed him. She had the impression that he was a junior member of the faculty. As a graduate assistant, he was part of the platoon of indentured servants who made life even easier for the faculty. He felt that he was monitoring the professor's lectures and in his discussion sessions he subtly corrected what Ranke had said. He did not correct Marcia's misapprehension. After all, in a few years ...
Her father was dead, her mother stone deaf; Orion became a constant visitor in their small house just east of the campus, within walking distance of graduate student housing on Bulla Road. As they walked back from her house they could see Hesburgh Library lift like a great sarcophagus among the trees. It was there that his study carrel was located. After a few months, they seemed to be engaged. When, given her passionate yielding, an early marriage seemed advisable, Orion told her they would be married in the log chapel.
"I'm not Catholic."
"That doesn't matter." In his cluttered, imperfectly formed Catholic mind a cunning thought occurred. Marriage to Marcia might not really count so far as the great book in the sky was concerned. He changed his mind about the log chapel, citing as reason his great reluctance that he might be married among those primitive paintings in which the natives obsequiously received the great white fathers. Orion and Marcia were married in the courthouse by a judge who had just sentenced a man to life imprisonment. Orion did not voice the joke that occurred to him. They honeymooned in Niles and moved in with her mother. Marcia wrote down the good news for her mother to read after several shouted versions failed to get through to her staring, open-mouthed parent.
Her father had been in real estate as had his father before him, the family business going back generations. The records of the now-defunct enterprise were in old wooden file cabinets stored in a rental locker north of town. An hour spent perusing them piqued his interest and Orion brought the records to the house and it was not long before his passion for research was diverted to the records of Younger Real Estate. The records went back into the nineteenth century and proved to be a vein of precious ore.
WHEN ROGER KNIGHT HAD
accepted the offer of the Huneker Chair of Catholic studies, his brother Philip, a private detective, moved to South Bend with him. For Roger, Notre Dame might be second only to Bardstown, Kentucky, in the American past of the church to which he had converted while a precocious graduate student at Princeton, but for Philip it was a place where seasons of sports succeeded one another liturgically. He continued to conduct his business, though more and more sporadically, from their new location. Roger had earned his doctorate summa cum laude at the age of nineteen, a boy who had inflated to dirigible size in the course of his accelerated studies. Armed with his degree he had emerged into a professional world that eyed him with wary caution. He had been on the short list for several teaching positions but in the end was given, in Philip's phrase, the short end of the stick. He lost interest in poring over The Chronicle of Higher Education for other opportunities and eventually, when Philip retreated from his Manhattan location to the comparative civility of Rye, Roger applied for and received a private investigator's license and Philip's advertisement in the Yellow Pages of strategically chosen major cities announced that Knight Brothers Investigations could be reached at the 800 number listed. Roger created a Web page as well and for some years they had taken on clients with a problem interesting enough to lure them from Rye. Meanwhile, Roger read and communicated via e-mail with kindred spirits about the globe on the myriad of things that engaged his scholarly mind. He wrote a book on Frederick Rolfe, aka Baron Corvo, which enjoyed first a succès d'estime and then, thanks to its selection by the History Book Club and its adoption by Barnes and Noble, enjoyed a wide readership as well. It was this book that caught the attention of Father Carmody and led to the offer of the Huneker chair.
At Notre Dame, Roger was a free variable floating over departmental divisions. He taught but one course a semester and it was cross-listed in English, philosophy, theology, and history. It was thanks to the latter connection that he had come to know Otto Ranke, an elderly professor to whom the concept of retirement was anathema. To Roger he represented a Notre Dame that was no more, a remnant of the small band whose teaching and writing bore the stamp of the religious affiliation of the university. Now Notre Dame described itself as a national research university and its distinctiveness as an institution, academically at least, was threatened. Today, Otto Ranke, with his interests in the role of the American bishops at Vatican II, and a monograph on distinguished visitors to the South Bend campus that had featured F. Marion Crawford, Robert Hugh Benson, Henry James, and William Butler Yeats, would have been an unlikely prospect for a position in the history department. With the retirement of Marvin O'Connell and Philip Gleason, Ranke was the history department for Roger Knight.
"A student of mine is writing his dissertation on that," Ranke said one day when they were discussing the past of the coordinates of space the university occupied, and the fate of the Indians had come up.
"I'd like to meet him."
"No, you wouldn't."
"An odd fellow."
Roger would have thought this would be a commendation rather than the reverse for Professor Ranke, but no further explanation was offered. They sat for a moment in silence, enveloped in the smoke from Otto's pipe. The smoke, from irresistible sweetness turned over time into something approaching the American pronunciation of the professor's family name, and there were complaints from purists along the corridor of Decio Hall. Notre Dame was a listed as a smoke-free campus, something that Ranke considered the result of the guttering of the fire of proud and confident Catholicity among the faculty. But he had been here before most of the campus buildings went up, his colleagues' parents had been children when he joined the faculty, and he was unmoved by their reiterated complaints. Smoking was still grudgingly permitted in the faculty office building, but plaintiffs insisted that cigars and pipes were excluded. They had no case. If Ranke noticed that he had been ostracized as an inconsiderate old bastard devoid of sensitivity, he gave no sign of it, but serenely lighted pipe full after pipe full of his aromatic offering to a better day.
Their conversation turned to the recent events in Cedar Grove Cemetery. Ranke nodded as if it too were an expected consequence of the university's swerve into secularization.
"Bigots," he opined, and began to speak of past episodes, notably the depredations of the KKK.
"Religion doesn't seem to be at the bottom if it," Roger said.
"Religion is at the bottom of everything."
Nothing could have stated more succinctly Roger's own conviction and he settled back contentedly to Ranke's impromptu lecture on the hooded hordes that had once harassed the campus.
IN HIS OPULENT OFFICE IN
the recently renovated Main Building, the chancellor brooded. Memories of the men who had met his plane when he returned from Hong Kong made him feel vulnerable to unknown menaces. His bags had been commandeered and he had been ushered swiftly to an exit.
The answer was lost in the racket made by the automatic doors of the terminal. Outside, an unseasonable cold greeted him. Father Bloom was pulling up the collar of his coat when his elbows were seized by the two accompanying him and he was hustled into a waiting car that was definitely not the university vehicle that was Johnny's pride. The driver behind the wheel was not Johnny. The car had sped off, the chancellor was unceremoniously conked on the head, and a darkness almost welcome after his long journey descended.
When consciousness returned he found himself in a small unlit room. There was a single television camera standing straddle-legged in a corner.
"You awake?" The voice might have been one of those that had come to Joan of Arc except for its cryptic menace.
"Where am I?"
Silence. His further questions went unanswered. He realized that he was bound to the chair in which he sat with rope pulled tightly about legs and chest and knotted firmly. Fear rose in Father Bloom's breast. In foreign lands, he was often warned about the risk of physical dangers due to local political conditions. He had never thought of South Bend as similarly threatening. His aprehension took the form of a Stevensonian title. Kidnapped. It had been one of his favorite books as a boy; he had dreamed of going into literature, but he had been ordered into theology where he had languished until he was plucked from the ranks and groomed for the soon-to-be-created office of chancellor of the university. From then on he had been the toy of one éminence grise after another, shadowy figures he had never thought of as forces in the Congregation. They had great plans for the forward leap of the university. He led a charge that others had planned. Where were his mentors now when his life was threatened?
Not a day had passed before he was marching to the drum of his unseen oppressors. The television camera was turned on from another room and he spoke the words he had memorized. When at the end he blurted out, "I'm sorry," his act of contrition might have covered sins undreamed of by those who held him captive.
On the second day, after hours when no bodiless commands or questions had come to him as if from airy spirits, the door was opened and his rescuers appeared. They had been informed by telephone where he could be found. He babbled half coherently of his ordeal.
"A prank," he was told.
"The less we make of it, the less their triumph will be. A jokester ignored is a sorry sight."
No sorrier sight than the chancellor when he was unbound. He stood, a wobbling Prometheus, and refused the suggestion that he had been the victim of a practical joke.
"They filmed me," he cried. "They made me say things ..."
Excerpted from THE BOOK OF KILLS by Ralph McInerny. Copyright © 2000 by Ralph McInerny. Excerpted by permission.