THE CASE OF THE MUSE OF MADNESS. A Novel by Charles M. Kovich and Curtis L. Hancock, A Father Schrader Mystery, Book 2 (Liber Media and Publishing, 10401 Holmes Rd., #120, Kansas City, Mo. 64131, 2004), 166 pp. HB $21.88.
Rockhurst University’s two murder-mystery, academic novelists, Charles Kovich and Curtis Hancock, have teamed up to produce the second volume in their Father Dietrich Shrader series. We are not wrong to suspect that something both philosophic and fishy will be found going on in St. Swinthun’s College. St. Swinthun’s is located in the heart of the Midwest countryside, but just close enough to pass for almost any Catholic college, whether with or without the local bishop’s Mandatum. But there seem to be rather a happy number of philosophers who are believers and clerics who are philosophers here.
Earlier, (HPR, July, 2002), I reviewed the first murder- mystery, The Case of Ockham’s Razor. Not entirely illogically it actually dealt with both a real razor and Ockham’s philosophic variety. Likewise, we will not be surprised in the present novel if we find illusions to Plato’s Phaedrus, to both real madness and, to recall Josef Pieper, the much more fascinating problem of philosophic madness.
Again we are involved at St. Swintun’s College, which turns out, not to mention the hospital next door (“St. Dymphna’s Home for the Nervously Excited”), to have a surprisingly large number of departments, ranging from animal husbandry, to modern dance, astronomy with a telescope, theology of all sorts, English, psychology, history, art, mathematics, various sciences, athletics, and of course philosophy, to which belongs Father Dietrich Shrader, C.S.C. (Congregation of St. John of the Cross). The narrator of the plot, Father Gerard Channing, is of the “Department of Classical, Arcane, and Modern Languages.”
The murders take place against the background of a new dean who wants to revamp the school so that it becomes “modern,” like other schools. To accomplish this unwelcome move, naturally, he must finesse faculty sensibilities, which is rather like squaring the circle, as we know. Academic committees are called, the ominous sounding Curriculum Vanguard Committee is formed to push the unsigned reform proposal through. Some academics resist this new system which, in effect, allows students simply to choose whatever they want to study. The system forces faculty to teach popular courses to attract them and pay their own salaries. No required courses. The new dean and, suspiciously, the psychology departments are in favor of this move, while the classics and philosophy, led by “Deets,” the hero, smell a rat.
The murders come fast and plenty and are giving the local college somewhat of a curious name in the local press. This particular school has produced an interesting number of rather oddly named folks to staff it and sometimes to get murdered. Reem Allwot, for instance is the head of the Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Department, Sham Puey is Chair of the Department of Dance and Modern Movement Science, Von St. Esprit is Director of the St. Swinthun’s Swallows, the musical group. It gets better. The Chairman of the Psychology Department is “Ennio Ploog.”
The plot revolves around a series of paintings of the classical Muses, Harpies, and Furies given to the university by a benefactor. Each department has its classical muse, Clio in History, Erato in Poetry. However, what also goes on is a pretty interesting discussion of the strengths and aberrations latent in any academic department, and this in the context of what, indeed, is an education. Father Channing carries this inquiry out as a late-added, because of the murder of a previous professor, member of the Curriculum Vanguard Committee, the creature of the modernist dean. St. Swinthun’s, we learn, has fifteen credits required in philosophy, unheard of these days, though once rather normal. But philosophy today usually means study of various philosophers, not philosophy itself.
In any case the villain of the plot turns out to be a fake priest who, once denied his doctorate at Great Western Provincial University in Canada, decides to take revenge by imitating a priest scholar and saint by the name of Father Moon. The delicious part of his revenge, aside from its murderous intent and action that even involves poisoning Mass wine, is that the culprit, a pseudo member of the “Order of the Sanguine Cross,” decides to do this corruption by imposing modern education on St. Swintun’s College! A fate, no doubt, worse than death, academic or otherwise.
Again, this novel is an enjoyable read in which much can be learned about education, the Church, logic, and human nature. We have police, doctors, priests, students, professors, benefactors, deans, the whole lot.
In conclusion, the narrator, Fr. Charming, C.S.C., has the happy habit of citing pithy Latin sentences throughout the book. The one I like best, itself full of Plato and Augustine, is from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: “Natura inest in mentibus nostris quaedam insatiabilis cupiditas veri videndi.” “Nature puts in our minds a certain insatiable desire of seeing the truth.” This is indeed the spirit of the Muse of Madness.
James V. Schall, S.J.