(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although mystery writer Jack Webb is often confused with Jack Randolph Webb (1920-1982), who produced and starred in the popular television series Dragnet, it is difficult to see how the mystery novels of Webb could be considered the work of the television star. Dragnet and other series produced by television’s Jack Webb are noted for a tough, no-nonsense approach to crime that emphasizes the boring and tedious elements of daily police work, debunks the conventions of detective fiction, and makes direct and simple, sometimes simplistic, moral judgments. By contrast, the mystery novels of the Jack Webb discussed here make heavy use of the conventions of detective fiction (unusual characters, elaborate plots, and abundant violence) but are also remarkable for their humor and frequent literary allusions, qualities for which the other Jack Webb is not noted.

The Big Sin

The unlikely pair of Father Shanley and Sammy Golden was introduced in The Big Sin (1952). Father Shanley, a rose-growing, pipe-smoking priest in his thirties, asks for the help of the police in solving the case of the death of one of his parishioners, Rose Mendez, who was ruled by the police to have committed suicide in the office of a nightclub owner. As a suicide (the “big sin” of the title), Rose may not receive the sacraments of the Church and may not be buried in consecrated ground. Father Shanley is at first attracted by a moral problem. Although Rose was a dancer in the club and lived on the fringes of the gangster world, the priest does not believe that she was a corrupt person or that she would kill herself. At the police station, he tries to arouse the interest of Sammy Golden, a plumpish Jewish detective in his thirties. Not only has Sammy been around the streets of Los Angeles, but he has also been action in World War II in North Africa, Salerno, and Anzio. Although he at first regards the priest’s request as motivated by naïve sentimentality, he soon becomes interested in the case; indeed, his sense of morality is as intense as that of the priest, although the detective tries to mask his humanity under a hard shell. When someone attempts to cover up certain aspects of the case, Sammy becomes fully committed to helping Father Shanley. The priest and the detective eventually solve the case, save the reputation of the girl, and uncover a scandal that reaches to the highest level of the city’s government. All the while, Father Shanley remains faithful to his priestly obligations; he says a prayer aloud, for example, as he and Sammy do some breaking and entering during their investigations.

The main weakness of the Webb mysteries is their elaborate and sometimes confusing plots. The Big Sin, Webb’s first book, has a labyrinthine structure that suggests that its author was unsure whether there was enough mystery and so kept adding plot twists. Webb’s later entries in the series are sparer and more effective.

The Naked Angel

The moral problems that Father Shanley encounters are interesting not only from the perspective of a priest but also from that of an ordinary reader. In The Naked Angel (1953), the priest hears police detective Mike Shannon call one of his parishioners a “greaser” and learns of his roughing up Mexican American suspects. Father Shanley believes that he must fight the detective to defend the honor of his flock and teach Shannon a lesson; the priest is good with his fists, an important skill to have considering the trouble that he and Sammy encounter. Father Shanley teaches the neighborhood boys to box and reminds Shannon that a priest started the Golden Gloves tournament. The priest lands some punches, but Shannon knocks him down, though not without regret. Later, confronting in an alley one of the Latin suspects in the naked angel case, Shannon remembers what he did to the priest, hesitates, and in that unguarded moment receives a knife in the belly. In the hospital, he asks to see the priest and dies cursing him, unrepentant, leaving Shanley to consider the practical difficulties of maintaining Christian civility in a fallen world.

The love interests in these mysteries are left for Sammy Golden to handle. (Father Shanley is so genuinely righteous that if he is ever attracted to a woman, the reader never discovers it.) Sammy’s work does not allow him to meet many law-abiding people, so the women with whom he becomes involved are usually on the wrong side of the law or tramps with hearts of gold. When a “good” woman does come along, such as Barbara Mendez, the sister of the murder victim in The Big Sin, Sammy...

(The entire section is 1904 words.)