previously reviewed Happy Are Those Who Mourn there is the presence of a malevolent ghost. This time, however, there is not a murder in a locked room but a naval officer who seemingly vanishes from a locked room. Compounding the mystery are two additional disappearances of naval officers who were cronies of a martinet of a commanding officer who was terrorizing and intimidating the crew of the USS Langley a series of that only succeeded in breaking down all morale. The crew believes that all those who vanished were killed and tossed overboard. Strange manifestations and creepy events especially among the women's quarters lead some of the more superstitious crew members to think that "Digby" Hoy, the vanished officer, is haunting the ship. Like the other book The Bishop at Sea is less a mystery novel than it is a sounding board for Greeley to discuss sociopolitical issues. In this case, the major issue is the role of women in the military.
Frustratingly, the mystery aspects become less and less important to the book as Blackie gets closer to the heart of the evil on board the carrier. The locked room is presented as puzzling but the solution is prosaic. The ghost is not at all a ghost. The disappearances are not disappearances. Greeley alludes to Chesterton's "The Invisible Man" repeatedly with teasing references to the crew to look for the mailman on board the aircraft which automatically telegraphs the solution to one that will involve disguise of some sort.
Rather than being a mystery novel The Bishop at Sea is really about didactics. Not only is the role of women in the military discussed ad nauseam with an ace woman pilot acting as a symbol for how women are maltreated, abused, and taunted, but the role of the military itself in United States politics is intensely discussed. Greeley gets to voice his opinions of how much government money is wasted on the military force especially with regard to aircraft carriers; how the military protects and covers up bad behavior and dangerous hazing that borders on attempted murder; and how there are two schools of thought in the military – the old veterans running everything who never wanted women in any roles whatsoever and the younger members, rising in rank, who see women in less traditional roles than their older superiors. As the parade of characters (and this is a huge cast) continues and Blackie probes further into the mystery the book seems less a novel than a protracted essay with characters' monologues serving as Greeley's bullet points in his lectures.
Based on other reviews elsewhere on the internet this is supposedly the best of the Blackie Ryan books. I will have to strongly disagree. Whereas Happy Are Those Who Mourn was a genuine mystery novel with an investigation that uncovered secrets that were integral to the story, The Bishop of Sea is a political diatribe disguised as a mystery novel. The mystery aspects of the book are always an afterthought, the solutions to those mysteries are not at all satisfying and presented way too matter-of-factly. The interrogation of the crew members becomes more and more an excuse to discuss controversy and "issues" with the mystery continually pushed to the background.
In the final pages when the mystery is sloppily solved the action explodes in violent gunfire, multiple bloody deaths, with the women saving the day. While I agree with many of Greeley's points the manner in which he uses his characters to put his theories and opinions into practice smacks of the contrived in this particular book. For this reason I felt cheated on multiple levels. I felt like a consumer who bought a mislabeled product and demands his money back on his purchase.
If you want to read a political treatise on women in the military and the role of the government in an aging backward military force then this is the book for you. As a mystery novel, however, The Bishop at Sea is a miserable failure.
I approached this book that deals heavily with the business -- both financial and spiritual -- of the Catholic Church, specifically the Archdiocese of Chicago, all in the context of a murder mystery with a air of smugness. Having been raised Catholic (though no longer attending mass nor participating in the rites and sacraments) I thought that I knew everything about my religion and that I would be bored with a rehash of the theological aspects that would most likely be written in simple to understand terms for a wider non-Catholic audience. I was hoping that the locked room murder plot would be enough to keep me interested. Instead I was slapped in the face by irony.
As I read I was captivated by all the discussions of canonical law and the financial obligations a U.S. parish has to the Archdiocese and to the Vatican. The plot hinges on a murder in a locked room and is mildly puzzling, but is not the real hook of the piece. The mystery is more concerned with the slow reveal of past secrets that eventually involve arcane and truly shocking laws in the Church. In particular I was astonished that there is a law dating back 1300 years that seems to condone a certain mortal sin or, rather, in extremely specific circumstances the sin in question is not a sin at all and does not need to be confessed. I was blown away by this.
While in Woodbridge Blackie learns that the dead priest was intentionally murdered and that his death was covered up to appear accidental. He also uncovers some questionable financial dealings with the parish money. He and the current pastor approximate that somewhere there is a missing $10,000,000 that belongs to the Archdiocese. Where did it go? Was that the motive for the murder of the priest? And what has Lynn Reed, a local woman dubbed the town nympho by a staunch nun, have to do with the death? She is Woodbridge's most beautiful woman and is known to flirt with all the men whether married or not. She was also was seen leaving the rectory carrying out boxes of documents a few days after his death. Is there some sort of conspiracy at work in Woodbridge?
The contrast between Cardinal Cronin and Bishop Ryan makes for entertaining springboard to the book's complex web of financial chicanery, sexual dalliance, and madness in the suburbs. While Cronin is a vociferous, temperamental whiskey taking boss who likes to lecture and will hear no arguments, Blackie is laconic, calm and almost stoic. He likes to reply to questions with a variety of adverbs among which "Arguably", "Doubtful", and "Indeed" are the most common. He jokes about his "invisibility" being one of his best attributes in his detective side work. Like Father Brown he is often taken for granted or completely ignored though he is very much present and all-observing.
The most captivating part of Blackie's character is that he is a truly modern priest. He refers to God as She, he does not believe in the concept of hell, he views sexuality as an expression of human spirituality, and above all he sees God as all-loving and forgiving to the extreme. Most of the time this laid back priest is as affable as can be, but can be stern and unyielding when his patience is tested by fools and braggarts. There are quite a few of those types among the parishioners of Woodbridge. Blackie makes for a good detective, too. He is skillful at getting people to drop their masks and show their true selves. It's not just Q&A, however, there are a few nice touches of legitimate old-fashioned detective work and some intuitive reasoning that come into play. Plus there is Blackie's belief in the existence of psychic phenomena, considered heretical by his Cardinal boss, but a genuine and welcome surprise to me. As Greeley slyly writes about the priest's dismissal of the poltergeist activity as "nothing but cheap tricks" I was convinced that the ghostly mischief would prove to be nothing but fakery, and yet... But that should be left for the reader to discover on his own.
Well read devotees of crime fiction may want to draw comparisons to John Dickson Carr and G.K. Chesterton in the story of a haunted tower, supernatural incidents and a locked room murder. There may be slight coincidences in those classic writers' books and stories but the true core of Greeley's story is not in the puzzle. Greeley is most interested in the secrets kept hidden in the hearts of Woodbridge's citizens. The heart of the story is quite literally found in the human heart -- in the desires and longings of the lonely, in the perverted pleasures of the corrupt, in the compassionate forgiveness of past transgressions, in the differences between a legal marriage and a marriage of the heart.