RARA-AVIS: Re: willie or not

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 08 Dec 2006


I won't go into your whole post, but one point you made:

"Also, referencing specific belief systems was death to publishers until very recently, especially in genre literature. In fact it may still be. Chesterton and Green are the only two I can think of who broke that rule yet were more or less 'successful.'"

struck me.

I'm not sure what you mean by "VERY recently," but over 40 years ago, Harry Kemelman was consistently hitting the best-seller lists, and winning awards, with a series about a crime-solving rabbi.

Earlier examples include Leonard Holton's series about a crime-solving priest, Jack Webb's (not the DRAGNET Webb) series about the crime-solving partnership between a Jewish cop and a Catholic priest, Anthony Boucher's series about a crime-solving nun, etc.

But aside from crime-solving Catholic or Jewish clerics, references to the specific religious beliefs of characters in genre fiction was not as unusual as you suggest. Thomas Walsh's Irish cops in score of short stories and novels like NIGHTMARE IN MANHATTAN or THE NIGHT WATCH, were all obviously, and usually devoutly, Catholic. Ed McBain's Meyer Meyer was non-practicing, but still believing, Jew, while Cotton Mather (named for a Puritan preacher in colonial times) was a protestant clergyman's son who still attended church services faithfully. Even Mike Shayne recalled going to Mass as a child in his debut novel, DIVIDEND ON DEATH.

And that's just published works. References to specific belief systems abounded in movies, TV, stage, and radio. One of the Lone Ranger's regular contacts was a Mexican-American Franciscan priest. One of Joe Friday's most popular cases was the investigation into the theft of a statue of Baby Jesus from a Catholic church (and Webb, though not Catholic himself, used Catholic imagery frequently). Hitchcock's I CONFESS is about a priest accused of the murder who knows who the real murderer is but can't reveal it because he heard the killer's confession, and, in THE WRONG MAN, another falsely accused defendant is cleared when the real culprit is arrested at the very moment the hero kneels down to pray the Rosary. The dying cop in Sidney Kingsley's stage play DETECTIVE STORY asks for a priest and his last words are the Catholic Act of Contrition.

None of these are any earlier than the mid-1960's. And that's just off the top of my head. I'm sure there are all kinds of other examples if I delved into it.

Are you aware of some publishers' "gentleman's agreement" to avoid references to specific sects in genre fiction or is that just an impression you had? And, if there was such an agreement, why was it apparently ignored so often?


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