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William Kienzle: Popular book series locally based

December 31, 2001

BY CHASTITY PRATT
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

William X. Kienzle, the local ex-priest whose first novel "The Rosary Murders" was made into a 1987 movie starring Donald Sutherland, has died.

Mr. Kienzle died on Friday of a heart attack at his West Bloomfield home.He was 73.

Mr. Kienzle's two dozen books featuring sleuth Father Robert Koesler are rich in background about Detroit and the city's religious inner workings.

The characters in his novels were often based upon area residents, including a medical examiner, a police inspector, a reporter and members of the clergy. The clever protagonist Father Koesler was more or less Mr. Kienzle's alter ego, said Javan Kienzle, his wife and editor. Father Koesler works at St. Anselm in Dearborn Heights, where Mr. Kienzle was pastor in the 1970s.

"The priesthood was very beloved to him," Javan Kienzle said of her husband. "He wrote about things he had known as a priest."

Mr. Kienzle was born Sept. 11, 1928, in Detroit. His mother's family was descended from settlers who came to the area with Cadillac, his wife said. Mr. Kienzle was a Catholic priest for 20 years and editor of the Michigan Catholic newspaper. He served at several Detroit area churches and was pastor at St. Anselm before leaving the priesthood and starting a second career as a novelist.

Although he married shortly after he left the priesthood, he didn't leave so he could get married but because he had philosophical differences with canon law, according to his wife and his friend James Macy.

"He could follow the laws of the church but could not inflict them on other people," said Macy, who knew Mr. Kienzle since they started seminary school together in 1942.

Originally, Mr. Kienzle began writing a book of memoirs, but the project didn't catch on with publishers. When a friend asked Mr. Kienzle to send story ideas for mystery books, he came up with an idea and decided to write it himself.

About a year later, in 1979, he published "The Rosary Murders" and introduced Father Koesler, a priest who must solve a murder in his Detroit parish.

Mr. Kienzle never saw the movie because he didn't want it to taint his depiction of his characters for future novels. His other books include "Death Wears a Red Hat" (1980), "Body Count" (1992) and "Call No Man Father" (1995). His latest novel, "The Gathering" will be released in April by Andrews McMeel, Javan Kienzle said.

Free Press staff writer Pat Chargot, who was the template for saucy reporter Pat Lennon in "The Rosary Murders," said, "He embellished pretty much . . . but I think he nailed it pretty well.

"He was a wonderful, imaginative, creative writer. And he retained his priestly edge, having just enough of the priestlike aura to enhance his intellectual side."

In addition to his wife, he is survived by stepson Michael Andrews.

Services have not yet been scheduled.

Contact CHASTITY PRATT at 313-223-4537 or pratt@freepress.com.