|Father Joseph Shanley (and Sammy Golden)
(creator: Jack Webb)
|Father Joseph Shanley of St Anne's Church in the parish of Royal Heights in an unnamed city (but obviously Los Angeles) in Southern California is described in the first book as " a young man in his early 30s, broad of shoulder and erect. The lines graven at the corners of his lips and fine blue eyes were saved from severity only by the touch of humor that turned the toes of the crow's feet up and gave his face a slightly quizzical expression when it was in repose." He is Irish, although with no trace of an accent, and five-ten or eleven in height.
He is a pipe-smoking "handsome priest", well able to look after himself and quite prepared to get into a fight and knock out a murderer if the occasion demands. "He was a fighter by instinct, a man of cloth by devotion and inspiration." He is in fine physical shape, and had once been inter-collegiate boxing champion, and had later is been taught judo by a marine sergeant while serving as a navy chaplain with the marines during the Second World War. But he is not at all proud of his own acts of violence, and when a cab driver admiringly tells him, "Man, you're all right", he replies gently, "I wish I were."
Father Shanley finds consolation in his roses, and thinks of God while he tends them. "I am not by nature a quiet man. Not by nature as gentle as I should be," he confesses to his bishop. " i come to these flowers that my hands may find occupation, my eyes beauty, my soul peace, and my mind the quiet."
He gets on very well with his parishioners: "They loved him as he loved them and he was grateful to them for this love. They refreshed his spirit." He is also well thought off by his Bishop, who has the magnificent name of Bishop Croissant.
His Jewish friend, Sammy (Elijah) Golden (whom he meets for the first time in the first book) is a Detective-sergeant in the City Homicide Division. He plays a more important part than Father Shanley in most of the stories. He is a "medium-sized, stocky figure", also in his early 30s, who, according to Father Shanley, only "wears his toughness like a mask". But he had won a Purple Heart beyond the beach at Anzio, and still seems to happily turn to violence. Indeed there is a suspicion that he might even enjoy it .
His Jewishness seems more a matter of race than of faith as he gave up practicing years ago, although he does tell Father Shanley that "Your God is a kinder one than mine." He seems surprisingly well informed about Christianity, knows about "the devil speaking with the tongue of angels" and what is meant by "a sin of omission", and refers to the Jew "who didn't know what to do with his 30 pieces of silver." He has not anything to say about the Talmud, though.
At first, he seems to find different sexual partners in each book, and tells Father Shenley, "Men will do funny things for love, father. I should know."
John Alfred "Jack" Webb (1916- 2008), not to be confused with the actor/director Jack Webb of Dragnet fame, is an American author who published some 15 books, some of them under the pen name of John Farr, betweeen 1952 and 1963. He also wrote Westerns under the name of Tex Grady. The 9 Shanley-Golden detective novels are described below. Born and educated in Southern California, where he lived in Playa Del Ray, he had a varied career as a keeper of birds in a zoo, an aircraft production supervisor and a technical writer before turning to full-time novel writing.
The Big Sin (1952)
At first tough young Detective-sergeant Samuel Golden is far from convinced. The case was officially closed and certain important figures in the city government wanted it to stay that way. But Father Shanley was determined -- and persuasive. And Sgt Golden soon found himself disobeying orders and investigating on his own -- hunted by his fellow cops and threatened by a hired killer. He also found enough evidence to convince him that the priest was right when he called Rose's death murder. And in the end Father Shanley's "act of faith" proves to be what destroys a whole corrupt city administration.
The author explains that this, his first mystery novel, "was written because I needed faith in myself. So I wrote a story about faith .... for all the gaudiness my story may wear as a mystery filled with violence, good is good in it and bad, bad, and there's strength enough in the simple faith within to swing the outcome." And so it is. It makes an exciting and violent story In which Father Shenley's faith plays a significant part, and it gets the series off to a strong start.
The relationship between Father Shanley and Sammy Golden is well handled, and other characters too, particularly Sammy's girlfriend Nell Wharton, and the vicious villains, really come to life. Sammy himself comes across as a tough determined character, who manages to survive getting knocked out, stabbed and shot, as well, of course, as getting suspended from the police, at which point he is perfectly ready to take the law into his own hands, even if it means killing the murderer himself.
Even Father Shanley gets involved in the fighting: Sammy saw him "feint with his left, draw the Swede's guard down, cross with his right, hard and sudden with the impact of a piledriver behind it, and connect with the big fellow's jaw." But when he wants to join Sammy chase after the villain, who has just kidnapped a girl and is threatening her life, Sammy tells him, "I don't want my conscience tagging along with its collar on backward."
So they set off together, "two young men with the weight of another life on their shoulders and a desperate urgency that they could not leave in God's hands. Not even a priest." When they discover the floor of an apartment covered in blood, Sammy asks Father Shanley, "Tell me this. What's the sin and who's the sinner if (the murderer) dies tonight?"
It all leads up to a really exciting conclusion when the arch villain is finally confronted. It certainly makes a good read, although, as with other books in the series, it would have been helpful if the story had been divided into chapters. Recommended.
The Naked Angel (1953)
Even Father Shanley quite amazingly challenges a bullying policeman to a boxing match which, of course, the reader expects him to win. "Father Shanley was beautiful to watch", but it is one of the strengths of this writer that he doesn't win the fight after all. It's a tough world and the author certainly does not glamorise anything. But the fights are described with a gusto that suggests that the author (and often even the participants) are enjoying themselves.
The author explains that "This story is about a fallen angel. Therefore it is all about sin, full of murder, guilt and suspense. I have tried to label good as good and bad as bad. In my opinion, Father Shanley and Sammy Golden are a stalwart partnership, inevitably allied and boldly on the side of the angels who have not fallen and never will." Yet Golden's violent behaviour often seems far from good.
The story is told with some hard-nosed humour, as when Father Shanley tells the bullying policeman that "It was a priest who began boxing as we know it .... His name was Bernardinus and he taught boxing in Sienna about seven and a half centuries ago. He is a saint now, by the way. Though I doubt that a good right or left was what got him into heaven. " As usual after a fight, Father Shanley was "no way content with himself either as a priest or as a man ... It is hard indeed for the Irish to be humble. And harder still for one of those chosen Gaels to ask forgiveness for raising his fists in righteous anger against the oppression of a tyrant."
Sammy himself ends up demoted to patrolman. He has solved the mystery, caught the murderer, but himself frequently broken the law. He makes an increasingly unappealing sort of hero. But the story is certainly fast-moving and full of incident. And the world of burlesque with the "naked angel who appears lightly on a short white cloud" is not without its interest.
The Damned Lovely (1954)
It is another tough, rough story, with plenty of action and a particularly nasty episode of repeated rapes, although we are spared unnecessary details of these. And there's a particularly unpleasant sadistic villain, Chick Loder, whom Sammy and Father Shanley pursue to an exciting violent climax. Although written in the style of its genre, it amounts to more than a simple cops-and-crooks chase and shoot-out, as there's even room for Saint Augustine's comment: "God Almighty would in no way permit evil in his works were He not so omnipotent and good that even out of evil he could work good," even if Sammy does not find it all that convincing.
The Broken Idol (1955)
It is another rough, tough, if run-of-the-mill, story, helped along by a few unlikely coincidences, but never failing to hold the interest as you are left wondering what is going to happen next. Golden, who as usual is in trouble with his bosses in the police department, is quite prepared to resort to torture to obtain essential information that will save the little girl's life. Father Shanley, like Golden, is ready to risk his life in an attempt to rescue the girl. The villains come across as real, disturbed people. And the violence too has its own dangerous fascination. But there is sometimes an uncomfortable feeling that it may be violence just for the sake of violence.
The Bad Blonde (1956)
In fact Golden not only gets knocked out in the course of the action (something that seems to happen in every book), but he also gets shot (another frequent occurrence). So even if the plot is not always very coherent, and at times can be quite confusing, there is certainly no lack of action
There are some nice cracks at the expense of the cosmetic industry, represented here by a firm called Love Time. It is owned, as a cover, by the crook Max Chester who could not help wondering "Why women would use such crap as came out of the vats and went into the pretty bottles and jars that cost even more than the stuff that filled them." This light-hearted approach is fine, but it is less than convincing when we are told that "Somewhere out there in the world's most widespread city, a laboratory was set up to build something worse than death. It had to be stopped before it bloomed into capsules and powders, before it became the lousiest of all cash-and-carry enterprises."
Golden seems to have really fallen for Liz Songer, whom he had met in a previous book, after she had been gang raped, an experience that had fundamentally affected her attitude to sex and marriage. "It's not fair," she tells him, "not fair to you. Why don't you find a whole girl, a girl who will play fair, not to make her own rules." She comes across as a very real character, and it is she who persuades him to move from his rather dreary city flat into a beach side apartment.
But there are long stretches in this admirably short book in which neither Shanley nor Golden are present, and these are a lot less interesting. And there are times when the coincidences make the plot creak. Father Shanley sometimes seems just a little too good to be true as when Ruth taunts him about his "damned holy meddling. Cast the first stone, Father, isn't that what your book says, let him cast the first stone who is without sin, you little plaster saint. You have been real good. I'll bet your little calendar is full of gold stars. What angle do you wear your halo at?"
Described by the publishers as "a sizzling thriller", the mixture is much as before, but it all works up, as usual, to an exciting climax, after which Father Shanley can even claim that the "bad blonde", Ruth, had "come clean." His blue eyes sparkled. "You don't see a thing like that often, not in a lifetime." No, you certainly don't.
The Brass Halo (1957)
The investigation that follows leads Sammy and Father Shanley to probe into a mysterious wedding picture, a showbiz world scandal sheet called Lurid, and shady dealings involving blackmail, arson and murder. It all makes a fast-moving and violent story that moves along at a brisk pace, and, as it is not too long, holds the interest throughout.
Sammy himself, having been badly burned in a fire, is officially on leave, but "in spite of all this, he felt good" as he had no intention of just staying at home. "Today's adventures would be the kind they wrote about in detective novels: Samuel Elijah Golden, the dilettante, would roam among the clues, converse with artists, and deduce." And so he does, even if he fails to recognize the disguised Domino when he meets her. Father Shanley is hot on the trail too, and It all ends in a violent fight in which the priest actually knocks out the villain.
Some of the characters, such as the very masculine ex-war hero turned artist with the unfortunate name of Allen Gay, who has painted a picture of Damino that he calls The Brass Halo, are not entirely convincing, but others like his glamorous model/would-be girlfriend Marilyn, and club boss Augie come across as interesting individuals. There are some effective caustic touches too, as when we are told that "It wasn't that Marilyn didn't love her mother; she simply couldn't stand her."
The author is a good story-teller, and the book is certainly more interesting than the average mystery-thriller.
The Deadly Sex (1959)
Father Shanley plays only a small part in this story which is a pity as Sammy Golden becomes less and less of an attractive character. At the end he tells Father Shanley, "I broke the faith. I am not fit to carry a badge. You should understand that." But, as he lies almost dead in hospital, Father Shanley continues to stand by him, fornication and all. " There is a pagan myth," he tells him, "that's been around for a long time. It says before Eve existed there was a woman called Lilith. She was not fecund. She existed for bodily pleasure. But, mark you this, Sammy, she was not worth losing paradise for. It took Eve to do that. A real woman, not a Rita Campbell." And he persuades Sammy that life is still worth living. But the whole situation lacks credibility.
There's again a feeling of violence for the sake of violence, as fight follows fight. It is not one of the better books.
The Delicate Darling (1959)
Shanley even hides Delicado in the rectory when the police are after him. He realises he should have called Sergeant Sammy Golden, but had not done so "because of the utter exhaustion in that fire-smudged, pale, sick, sleeping face. And most of all, because his own Chief Counsel had said: "He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall not thirst ... and him who comes to me I will not cast out." It all sounds surprisingly sentimental for such a hard- hitting author.
Both Father Shanley and Sammy Golden are now "getting on to 40", but are still having difficulties with Shanley's housekeeper, the grumpy Mrs Mulvaney, who has had dental problems and whose place in the Rectory is being temporarily taken by her surprisingly beautiful daughter Patricia, who is improbably helped to escape from her domineering mother by newspaperman Tom Meigs. There is the usual shoot-out at the end, but the reader does not feel too involved in all these unlikely goings on. The author just seems to be repeating himself. It is as if he himself had lost interest in his heroes.
The Gilded Witch (1963)
So Basta had plenty of enemies. And then Carmen Montaya was found hanging from a rafter in the shed behind her house. She had been prominent in Manana Town as the whore who had slept with the narrator.
Father Shanley had just begun to hear someone in the confessional confessing to a murder, when he collapsed, knocked out by a viral infection. His doctor diagnoses a possible nervous breakdown so he is sent by his bishop on a month's leave. He spends this at Sammy's beach house, where Sammy too is soon sent on forced leave. Together they try to help Basta's young widow, whose husband had walked out on her on her wedding night - or so she says.
For the first time in this series the author breaks down the story into separate chapters, which makes it much easier to read. There is no longer any feeling that the violence is just for the sake of violence, and the whole characterisation and treatment are more profound than in previous books. Father Shanley seems much more of a real priest rather than just a clean cut hero who goes round knocking out villains. After seeing the dead body of a girl who committed suicide, "In the quiet of his own room on the second floor of the parish house, he wept. I was blind when I should have seen, deaf when I should have heard, dumb when I should have spoken. Kneeling beside the steady oak chair where he so often read his Office of the day, Father Shanley prayed."
Father Sheldon and Sammy have turned 40 now, and have built up a steady relationship, although of course, in matters concerning the Confessional. Sheldon has to to remind him, "I'm sorry Sammy. It's awkward, but I can't explain."
Meanwhile Captain Cantrell of the local police is boasting to Sammy's friend, Lieutenant Dan Adams, "We're going to break this Royal Heights mess wide open!"
At one point, Father Sheldon explains to Sammy, "The license of fiction is in the story it tells which is never life itself but a translation of life which makes the facts more logical." But it is a pity that that the author had to use Satanism to provide his "logical" reason for what had happened, as it makes it all seem just too glib.
However, Father Shanley ends up by believing that even Gil Basta's dirty book had been meant well: "False sanctity had been rooted out to stand full figured and naked under illuminating light. Good and evil had been weighed in the balance, and if good had been found wanting, it had not been for the quality of goodness, but rather for its quantity. Much in the book that had hurt the most had hurt because it was close to the truth."
The story does not read as if the author had realised that this would be the last book in the series. It is a real improvement on the apparent pot-boilers that had immediately preceded it. Recommended.
|In the absence of any photo of Jack Webb, here is an artist's inpression of Father Shanley, taken from the back cover of The Big Sin.|
|This choice of illustration for the first book seems a bit odd,but presumably was thought to be more appealing than a picture of a priest and/or a Jewish detective.|
|This British hardback follows the tradition of lurid covers. In this case, the content is pretty lurid too.|