William X. Kienzle, 73; Ex-Priest, Author


William Xavier Kienzle, a literary Roman Catholic priest from Detroit who ran his diocesan newspaper and other publications for 20 years and then turned in his collar and robes to write nearly two dozen best-selling mystery novels, has died. He was 73.

Kienzle, whose first book, "The Rosary Murders," was made into a 1987 film starring Donald Sutherland as his protagonist priest, died Friday of a heart attack at his home in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Born in Detroit, Kienzle once told The Times he made the unusual change in professions so that he could share all the weird and funny things that happened during his two decades as a Motown priest.

Educated at Sacred Heart Seminary College and St. John's Seminary, Kienzle demonstrated a flair for writing from the time of his 1954 ordination. During his work at five Detroit parishes before leaving the priesthood in 1974, he contributed articles to the Minneapolis magazine MPLS under the pseudonym Mark Boyle.

More significant, from 1962 to 1974 he was editor in chief of the archdiocese's newspaper, Michigan Catholic, earning a Michigan Knights of Columbus award for general excellence in journalism and a Catholic Press Assn. acknowledgment for editorial writing.

Kienzle spent five years segueing from priesthood to novelist, moving from MPLS to teaching contemplative studies at Western Michigan University and then the University of Dallas.

But in 1979, he published his first novel, patterning his kindly, liberal hero priest and Catholic journalist of Detroit--Father Robert Koesler--somewhat after himself.

First novels rarely do so well. But, as a Times reviewer noted, "heaven seems to have smiled" and Kienzle's "The Rosary Murders" landed on the top-10 bestseller lists, was adopted by several book clubs, was reprinted in paperback and was quickly picked up for the movie.

In "The Rosary Murders," Koesler, portrayed by Sutherland, hears the confession of a Detroit serial killer of priests and nuns and must contend with his inability to tell police because of a canon law promising confession-booth confidentiality. To tout the movie, the Hollywood ads teased: "Bless me father, for I have killed."

The plot established Kienzle's style, which a Times reviewer described as "a curious mixture of violence, humor and religious commentary." The writer applauded the first book as "ingenious, witty and literate."

Peter Gorner wrote for the Chicago Tribune that it "quickly established Father Koesler as among the most likable and authentic of all recent sleuths, and gave his wise and compassionate creator [Kienzle] a midlife career and a new pulpit. Few mystery series have been more cozy and persuasive."

Kienzle always insisted that his books were "first of all thrillers," but they did deal partly with theological controversies, and many critics saw deeper meanings behind the whodunits. Gorner, for example, called Kienzle's novels "more small morality plays than classic mysteries."

The former priest's second book, published in 1980, was titled "Death Wears a Red Hat" only after Kienzle's publisher rejected his somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestions of "I Had Intercourse with a Bear" or "I Had Intercourse with a Bear for the FBI and Found God." Tangled in the plot along with Detroit priests, cops and journalists were such subjects as decapitations, extortion, prostitution, drug peddling, black magic and abortion.

Kienzle continued to successfully spin out the books at a rate of one a year: "Mind over Murder," "Assault with Intent," "Shadow of Death," "Kill and Tell," "Sudden Death," "Deathbed," "Deadline for a Critic," "Marked for Murder," "Eminence," "Masquerade," "Chameleon," "Body Count," "Dead Wrong," "Bishop as Pawn," "Call No Man Father," "Requiem for Moses," "The Man Who Loved God," "The Greatest Evil," "No Greater Love," "Till Death" and last year's "The Sacrifice."

The priest-author Kienzle married Javan Herman Andrews in 1974, and the priest-protagonist Koesler never hesitated to do something controversial like walk an ex-nun down the aisle at her wedding.

Kienzle's work was sometimes compared to other religious-ethnic mystery series: one featuring the fictional Rabbi Small and written by Harry Kemelman, and another following Father Brown as created and written by G.K. Chesterton. But, far from accusing Kienzle of imitating those who had gone before, critics said he merely proved that religion was full of possibilities for the mystery genre.

The author played with that concept in "Masquerade," rated by Times reviewer Charles Champlin as "pleasant and tasteful reading." The plot involves Koesler speaking at an ecumenical crime writers conference, attended by a rabbi who writes about a sleuthing rabbi, and features a despicable publisher as the murder victim.

Referring to Kienzle's sixth novel, "Kill and Tell," another Times reviewer wrote that "there seems to be a Koesler cult developing reminiscent of the following for Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown."

Kienzle is survived by his wife.

A memorial Mass is scheduled at 1 p.m. Jan. 12 at St. Owen's Church in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

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