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Book Review

Chicago Sleuths Make a Cozy Nick and Nora

IRISH EYES by Andrew M. Greeley; Forge $24.95, 318 pages

March 21, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Andrew M. Greeley, Catholic priest, sociologist, columnist and bestselling mainstream novelist, also finds time to write mysteries. The latest in his series features Irish-born clairvoyant, folk singer and amateur detective Nuala Anne McGrail (following "Irish Gold," "Irish Lace" and "Irish Whiskey").

In "Irish Eyes," Nuala Anne and her husband, Dermot Coyne, are vacationing at his parents' beach house east of Chicago. She sees a five-masted barkentine and a paddle-wheel steamer go by. Dermot can't see them--he lacks the psychic powers of his wife and their infant daughter, Nelliecoyne, who suddenly howls in her crib. But he knows those ships collided in a Lake Michigan blizzard a century ago. The paddle-wheeler sank and 200 people died.

"My wife is fey, you see," says Dermot, himself a novelist. "She sees things, usually from the past and, more often than not, things about which she and I must do something."

But what are they supposed to do about a couple of ghost ships? As Nuala Anne says, "We not only have to solve the mystery, we have to find out what it is."

Meanwhile, Nuala Anne's career has struck a navigational hazard of its own: Nick Farmer, a music critic on Chicago radio and TV stations who wants to rid the world of "cheap Irish Catholic kitsch."

Farmer is mean, petty and unprincipled. He ridicules Nuala Anne's "superstitious piety" and the quality of her voice. He claims she's taking up room on the pop charts that belongs to African American singers. He accuses her of exploitation and child abuse when she sings lullabies to Nelliecoyne during a Christmas special. He hires thugs to fake an attempt on his life, and alleges that Nuala Anne and Dermot are to blame.

Later, when somebody else whacks Farmer for real, the Coynes aren't viewed seriously as suspects, but Nuala Anne vows to solve that mystery too and rid her family of any lingering taint.

Not that she and Dermot are without allies. An immensely cozy and powerful Chicago network surrounds them. If they need a priest, a cop, a historian, a lawyer, a security expert or a pipeline to the Mafia, one can be found among their relatives or friends. Even their wolfhound, Fiona, is a former Irish Garda dog, more than a match for bad guys with guns.

Coziness, indeed, is the appeal of these mysteries. Solid, modest Dermot and fiery, unpredictable Nuala Anne enjoy an ideal marriage: sexy and humorous and unabashedly loving. Happiness is harder to write about than misery, and Greeley deserves credit for making this fantasy, though it starts to cloy at the end, as much fun as it is.

Greeley also is generous with historical background on Chicago--the world's busiest port in 1870. Some of the best parts of "Irish Eyes" are excerpts from the diary of a woman who lost her baby when the fictional paddle-wheeler sank in 1898. It had been chartered by the Ancient Order of Hibernians to take immigrants on an excursion to raise funds for Irish revolutionaries.

But Greeley always goes a bit too far. It's one thing to point out that the hellish stockyards described in Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" were also a place where immigrants eventually succeeded, quite another to call Sinclair's novel "elite left-wing snobbery." It's one thing to bash the media for stupidity and arrogance, quite another to accuse the New York Times of being "racist" and "anti-Irish Catholic."

Farmer, we discover, hates Dermot because Farmer's "gritty, gutsy" Chicago novel didn't sell, whereas a "trashy potboiler" Dermot published at the same time did. Greeley is thumbing his nose at his own critics here, but Farmer, sleazeball though he is, probably had a legitimate beef.

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