Father Duffy/Father McMahon

(creator: Dorothy Salisbury Davis)


Dorothy Salisbury Davis
Father Duffy, who appears in just the first book below, is assistant pastor of St Timothy's, one of the largest parishes in Manhattan. He had been a chaplain in the army. It is said that "he hated it and he won't join any of their organisations." But "they say when he was in the army the boys thought the world of him. He'd go through the barracks of a Sunday morning shouting: 'Come on you bloody heathens, get the hell out of your beds and into the chapel!' " . Men still saw him as "a regular -- a right guy." He is still young, and is intelligent, conscientious and very determined to follow things through. And that is just about all we are told about him.

Father Joseph McMahon (featured in the second book below) is a much more human and rounded character. His age is around 40. He is one of four priests at St Peter's in New York, which "was becoming more and more a poor parish" and includes a rapidly increasing minority of parishioners who are bilingual or, as McMahon puts it, semilingual. He himself had come from a working class background.
He admits to drinking too much, and describes even a suspected murderer as being "a lot more sure than I am of salvation".
Old Monsignor Casey, whom McMahon respects, tells him, "If you lived up to the talents God gave you for directing a parish instead of diddling on that piano in there, if you left the highfalutin music to Carenegie Hall and taught the girls the songs of their own people that'd keep them singing at home and off the streets, then you'd be doing a priest's work."
He is a down-to-earth realistic character, if less than a perfect priest, whose personal problems are much increased when he falls in love.

Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1916 - ) is the author of twenty novels as well as short stories. She was an adopted child who grew up in rural Illinois. She worked in advertising and as a librarian, then published her first novel in 1949. She became President of the Mystery Writers of America. Her book A Gentle Murderer was chosen as one of the Haycraft-Queen cornerstones of detective fiction. She herself thinks that Where the Dark Streets Go (televised by CBS as Broken Vows) was one of her best books. She says that in all her books she tries to "show, don't tell" - and credits readers with the ability to work some things out for themselves. She married character actor Harry Davis in 1946.

A Gentle Murderer (1951)
A Gentle Murderer s
tarts in the confessional. Father Duffy is shocked to hear a young stranger confess, "Father, I think I've killed someone. I wanted to die myself. But I committed a murder instead. I wanted to do some good." Father Duffy "craved wisdom from heaven", as he listened to the young man whose outpourings about a hammer and a woman who died made little sense to him. Duffy suggests that he should go to the police and tells him, "I will give you conditional absolution. I'll visit you." But then the man hurries off and Duffy has no idea as to his identity. It is only when he hears of the brutal murder of a call girl, who has been hammered to death, that he realises that he had been speaking to the murderer himself, and sets about discovering who he really was.

Duffy makes a determined detective, effectively following up on the few clues that the murderer had given him. And the more he discovers about the murderer's past, the more understanding he has for him. He proves so effective in following his trail that Sergeant Goldsmith of the local police, also hotly in pursuit, keeps a very close eye on him so that he too is eventually led to the killer whose motive, it turns out, "was saving souls by getting them out of this world".

This makes quite an interesting story, but there is no really exciting action, and Father Duffy himself seems less real than some of the women characters such as the buxom widow, Mrs Galli, and her sweet and virginal seventeen year old daughter Katie, both of whom fall for the murderer's charms.

Where the Dark Streets Go (1970)
Where the Dark Streets Go was initially suggested by a note that the author had written in her diary: "I know what a priest is to other people, but what is he to himself?" So she developed this interesting story that gets off to a dramatic start when Father McMahon is called to the scene of a stabbing. The dying man tells him, "Talk to me of anything but death" and asks him what he had been doing when he had been called out.
"I was trying to write a sermon."
"Oh, God Almighty, I'm glad I got you away from that."
McMahon laughed. He could not help it and he was glad, for he saw that he had pleased the man.
"Do you believe what you wrote in that sermon?"
"I try to write what I believe."
"Are you sure it's not the other way around?"
"No. I am not sure."

It makes an intriguing conversation, and, when the man dies, Father McMahon is motivated into undertaking a double search - for the identity of the dead man, and for his killer. As he gradually fits together a portrait of the elusive, complex, gifted man whom he saw die, McMahon becomes deeply involved in a personal conflict. He falls in love with Nim Lavery, the girl who becomes party to his search for the killer, and he is torn between his faith in the church in which he took his vows and his longing for a new sense of self realisation.
"Please take off the collar," she tells him. "I want to call you Joe." And it goes on from there.
"You know," she told him, "I dig everything about religion except the church."
"And God," McMahon suggested.
"Sometimes I even dig him. But that's when things are pretty bad."
"Try it some time when things are good. You will like him better."
"Who needs him then?" she said.

There are a number of lively and realistic characters, including Mrs Priscilla Phelan who had been trying to coax her husband back into bed with her, a "problem about which she had been coming to him (Father McMahon) off and on for several weeks." But Dan Phelan is not only a suspected murderer, but, it turns out, a homosexual, and McMahon persuades him to see a psychiatrist: "He can't change me," said Phelan,
"He can help you live with yourself -- whether it is with Priscilla or not," replied McMahon.

It is a revealing, interesting, unpredictable and very well-told story that holds the attention throughout. Recommended.


There is a rather wandering 1987 half hour audio interview with the author on the Wired for Books site, in which she describes her search for her real parents and explains how her first book came to be published.



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A Gentle Murderer cover
Few other crime novels use an author's portrait as the cover illustration, as on this book featuring Father Duffy.
The paperback version
below is far less restrained.
A Gentle Murderer cover
Where the Dark Streets Go cover
This is by far the better book. It features Father McMahon.
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