(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Leonard Holton’s eleven crime novels star Father Joseph Bredder, a saintly Franciscan who humanely and humorously attends to his clerical duties for a convent with its attached church and school while solving crimes involving those he knows or with whom he comes into contact during the course of his duties or hobbies. Father Bredder’s faith and character are vital to the series. His commitment to God is frequently emphasized by references to the founder of his order and to Saint Paul; both are emblematic of Father Bredder’s compassion, love, and understanding. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is mirrored in Father Bredder’s own sudden conversion when, as a marine sergeant, he witnessed Japanese soldiers dying in flames, an incident referred to throughout the series. His faith leads him to solve crimes for much the same reason that motivates G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown: a vocation to tend to the spiritual needs of the criminal. Nevertheless, only in this way and in his use of religion-based information—what Father Bredder calls “spiritual fingerprints”—does he much resemble Father Brown. Holton’s disclaimer of any further influence, made in his 1978 essay, “Father Bredder,” is no doubt accurate.

Whereas Chesterton stressed Father Brown’s ordinariness, Holton presents Bredder as extraordinary. The reader’s prejudices are assaulted by the focus on a marine, in a job known for violence, as a priest, even though violence is precisely the reason for his conversion. To emphasize this unusual personality, Holton makes his character a successful prizefighter as well, one whose ability is highlighted in Flowers by Request (1964) when the bishop gives him permission to fight an exhibition match that will raise money for repairs to the church organ. Depicted throughout the series are Father Bredder’s friendships with members of the seedier elements of the Los Angeles streets: the hotel keeper, Mrs. Cha; a fence known as “the Senator”; a broken-down boxer, Cagey Williams; and others who aid Father Bredder and, because of their aid, vindicate his faith in humanity.

These street figures are aspects of a major strength of the novels. Far more than many authors of detective series, Holton creates an elaborate society around his detective and so can draw on the people in the convent and its church and school, the inner-city people from Father Bredder’s earlier assignment, his former marine friends, and the police. The police play a key role in the series, in the person of Lieutenant Minardi, Father Bredder’s closest friend. (Even in the one novel not set in Los Angeles, Deliver Us from Wolves, 1963, which is set in Portugal, Minardi appears at the opening and conclusion and, by mail, solves the main part of the police work.) The lieutenant always solves the cases on a police level, while Father Bredder probes the underlying spiritual puzzles. Unlike Father Brown and some other sleuths of crime fiction, Father Bredder has no objection to civil penalties for crime and is therefore fully willing to help and be helped by his friend. Another police officer who often appears in the novels is Minardi’s superior, Captain “Normal” Redmond, whose WASP blandness is humorously compared with Minardi’s emotionalism and Bredder’s spirituality, the captain by temperament understanding nothing of the priest. The final novel of the series, A Corner of Paradise (1977), introduces another delightful character, the Jewish Sergeant Rosenman, who complements the Italian Minardi and the WASP Redmond. These police officers—primarily Minardi—provide much of the stories’ plausibility. In their routines, their ability to collect information, and their respect for law, they assist Father Bredder as he makes sense of what he considers the more important aspects of the cases.

Characters from the convent make up another group in Father Bredder’s world. The personality of the Reverend Mother Therese forms a contrast to that of Father Bredder, for she is remote, reserved, and conservative, or she seems so to him, although she frequently assists him in surprising ways. His housekeeper is Mrs. Winters, another church conservative, whose name in A Corner of Paradise is inexplicably changed to Mrs. Wentworth, the name of the murdered wife in A Pact with Satan (1960). His assistant priest is the scholarly Englishman Father Armstrong, who makes Father Bredder feel intellectually inferior. Attending the convent school is Lieutenant Minardi’s daughter, Barbara, who is twelve years old in A Pact with Satan and ages to twenty by 1977, in A Corner of Paradise.

Barbara generally plays a role in events that run parallel to the main mysteries, although she nearly is a victim herself in The Saint Maker (1959) and is not mentioned in The Devil to Play (1974). Her marriage to a black playwright...

(The entire section is 2012 words.)