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Colorful drawing of black fire escapes latticed against a red brick building.
Cover art is adapted from a Work Projects Administration poster "Keep Your Fire Escapes Clear." Prints and Photographs Division.

Crime Classics: “A Gentle Murderer” Joins the List!

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This is a guest post by Zach Klitzman, editorial assistant in the Library’s Publishing Office.

A priest, a detective and an impoverished poet might sound like the setup to a joke—but Father Duffy, Sergeant Ben Goldsmith and Tim Brandon are no laughing matter in the gripping new addition to the Library of Congress Crime Classics series, “A Gentle Murderer.”

Dorothy Salisbury Davis’ landmark novel, first published in 1951, combines suspense and innovative psychological insight as Duffy, a Catholic priest, and Goldsmith, an NYPD detective, attempt to track down Brandon, who had confessed — anonymously — to murdering a call girl.

Critic Anthony Boucher described the novel as “one of the greatest detective stories of modern times” and in the introduction to the Library’s edition, Crime Classics series editor Leslie S. Klinger describes it as “a masterpiece” for blending two subgenres of crime fiction: clerical detectives and criminal profiling.

Although there are some biblical antecedents, clergy investigating crimes in detective fiction dates to the early 20th century. G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown appeared in more than 50 stories, starting with 1911’s “The Innocence of Father Brown.” Several radio, television and film adaptations followed, including a 1934 film starring Walter Connolly as the Catholic priest.

Movie poster with the large image of a shadowy priest looking down over a wet-dressed couple, who look alarmed
Father Brown, Detective,” a 1934 Paramount film. Prints and Photographs Division.

Other famous clerical detectives post-date Davis’ protagonist and include Rabbi David Small, who first appeared in Harry Kemelman’s “Friday the Rabbi Slept Late” in 1964. There’s also Cadfael, the 12-century Benedictine monk who appeared in 21 novels written by Ellis Peters (a pseudonym for Edith Pargeter), starting in the late 1970s; and, of course, William of Baskerville, the Franciscan friar of Umberto Eco’s 1980 seminal work, “The Name of the Rose.”

In “A Gentle Murderer,” Father Duffy investigates Brandon’s past and present, through the tenements of New York City to rural Pennsylvania and to Cleveland. Goldsmith, meanwhile, utilizes traditional police methods including interviewing witnesses, canvassing the neighborhood where the crime was committed, and using what we would call criminal profiling to try to understand what kind of person would commit the murder.

Criminal profiling first came into vogue in the late 19th century with the Jack the Ripper killings in London, which transfixed the public on both sides of the Atlantic. Several theories emerged about the identity of the killer of at least five women. Surgeon Thomas Bond created an 11-point profile of the killer for the Metropolitan Police, concluding that the killer was likely “a man subject to periodical attacks of Homicidal and erotic mania” who also “would probably be solitary and eccentric in his habits.” Although the offender was never caught, Bond’s theories ushered in a new era of crime detection.

Crudely drawn black and white sketch of a man wearing bowler, heavy mustache and severe expression.
“Jack the Ripper’s Mark,” April 25, 1891. “The Sun” (New York, NY). Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

One of the next big cases of criminal profiling occurred in the 1950s with the Mad Bomber of New York City. From 1940 to 1956, the perpetrator planted 32 bombs, 22 of which exploded, injuring 15 people. The police were stymied until psychiatrist James A. Brussel created a profile of a man who was roughly 40 to 50 years old; likely lived alone, possibly in Connecticut; was a disgruntled former Con Edison employee (the first bomb had been sent to that power company); and likely would wear a double-breasted suit when he was arrested.

The profile was publicly released in newspapers December 25, 1956, and it led to hundreds of false leads, bomb threats and confessions. But within a month George Metesky — a 53-year-old Waterbury, Connecticut, resident who had been injured while working for Con Edison in 1931 — was arrested. He wore a double-breasted suit when the police removed him from his house.

Black and white journalism-style photo of a bespectacled middle-aged man being led down a flight of steps by a policeman on each arm.
George Metesky, known as the Mad Bomber, under arrest. Photo: Ed Ford, 1957. Prints and Photographs Division.

The FBI established a Behavior Science Unit in 1972. The trope of using psychology to figure out criminal identities in popular entertainment became commonplace, as seen in films such as “Silence of the Lambs,” television shows such as “Criminal Minds” and nonfiction books with titles like “Manhunters: Criminal Profilers & Their Search For The World’s Most Wanted Serial Killers.”

Dorothy Salisbury Davis’ use of criminal profiling made her a trendsetter, a distinction that holds true for much of her 20 novels and many short stories. Before her crime fiction took off, she worked as a magician’s assistant, a technical writer for a meatpacking company and a research librarian and editor at a magazine.

She received several Edgar Award nominations and was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of American in 1985. Though women mystery writers such as Anna Katharine Green and Agatha Christie had achieved success, Davis was part of the first generation of women to write domestic suspense novels. She was a founding member of Sisters in Crime, an organization of women mystery writers. Davis died at the age of 98 in 2014.

Library of Congress Crime Classics are published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in association with the Library of Congress. Each volume includes the original text, an introduction, author biography, notes, recommendations for further reading and suggested discussion questions from mystery expert Leslie S. Klinger. A Gentle Murderer,” published on March 7, is available in softcover ($14.99) from booksellers worldwide, including the Library of Congress shop.



  1. Was George Metetsky dressing deliberately to play with the profile? It almost seems likely. And, funny how fast some cultural meanings fade.

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