Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Deadly Sex, by Jack Webb


In memory of California novelist John Alfred “Jack” Webb, who evidently died in February 2008 (though his passing was only recently announced), this week’s book jacket comes from the 1961 paperback edition of The Deadly Sex, a novel Webb had seen published in hardcover just two years before. It was the seventh installment of a then-popular mystery series starring priest-cum-amateur sleuth Father Joseph Shanley and his friend, police homicide detective Sammy “Elijah” Golden.

As Philip Grosset recalls on his Web site, Clerical Detectives, Father Shanley worked out of “St. Anne’s Church in the parish of Royal Heights” in an unidentified Southern California city that was assumed to be Los Angeles. Grosset notes that Shanley was a conscientious tender of both roses and souls, and that the character was described in his first outing (The Big Sin, 1952) 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.”
Like the Reverend Clare Fergusson in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s fine novels, Leonard Holton’s Father Joseph Bredder, and Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi David Small, Catholic Shanley had a tight and beneficial association with one of the local cops, Detective Sergeant Golden, a non-practicing Jew in his mid-30s, a “medium-sized, stocky figure” who served in World War II and “still seems to happily turn to violence.” Over the course of nine books, Shanley and Golden worked out problems of personal, criminal, and religious natures, all the while strengthening their friendship and mutual understanding.

The Signet paperback cover that tops this post was illustrated by Robert K. Abbett, who I praised earlier this month for his work on Richard Deming’s Anything But Saintly. Seductive without being too revealing, and strikingly dependent on shades of red and its artistically gathered arrangement of type, Abbett’s Deadly Sex jacket was undoubtedly a stunner on bookshelves when it appeared in the same year that John F. Kennedy took his oath of office as the 35th president of the United States. Unfortunately, Grosset opines, The Deadly Sex “is not one of the better [Shanley-Golden] books.” He explains the story’s plot this way:
The Deadly Sex has detective Sammy Golden being told to acquire a hangover and then report for duty. This is all part of a police plan to catch the murderer of an ex-policeman, one of Sammy’s friends. So he turns up at a roadhouse called the Seven Club, ready for both beer and trouble. It is there that he meets a strange blonde, called Laura, and saves her from a fight that breaks out. This leads him into a whole series of particularly violent (and rather confusing) adventures, at the end of which he is about to flee the country with his latest lover, a crook called Rita Campbell, and her smuggled diamonds when he get shot.

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 [Golden], “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.
Oh, well, there are eight other Shanley novels to sample and enjoy, including at least two--The Damned Lovely (1954) and The Brass Halo (1957), both featured above--that were illustrated by another 20th-century paperback artist of renown, Robert Maguire.

In addition to those works, Webb (who shouldn’t be confused with the Jack Webb responsible for bringing us Dragnet and Hec Ramsey, any more than his priest protagonist ought to be confused with the defrocked Father Shanley who was convicted of child rape) penned a couple of standalones: One for My Dame (1961) and Make My Bed Soon (1963). He also wrote five more crime novels under the pseudonym “John Farr,” and at least one Western as “Tex Grady.”

Author Jack Webb was 92 years old when he died in Coronado, California, last year. Since all of his novels appear to have been published in the mid-1900s, it makes you wonder what happened to him during the last four decades of his life. If anybody has information along that line, please don’t hesitate to drop it into the Comments section below.

1 comment:

Cullen Gallagher said...

Wow! Once again a great history lesson. I had only heard Jack Webb's name before, and I'm ashamed to admit that I always assumed there was some connection between him and Dragnet. Guess I was wrong... But now I'll know to be on the lookout for these.

Looking forward to next week's Killer Cover.