Imagine yourself in a dangerous country where you don’t speak the language and the enemy is after you. The enemy hides behind the innocent while stalking you, and you don’t know when he will strike. I know such a man who faced this kind of danger, and I want to share a little bit about him because, although we never met, he influenced my life and my novel Pretty City Murder. His name is Father Joe Devlin SJ.
Father Joe was a Jesuit missionary in Vietnam from 1970 to 1975. He fled Vietnam on one of the last helicopters to lift off from the American Embassy in Saigon at the end of April 1975. Father Joe later said he could be seen on American television as the events unfolded.
I am connected to Father Joe through his brother, also a priest. Father Ray was my brother’s high school religion teacher and gave us instruction in the faith at home.
San Jose State University Professor Larry Engelmann interviewed Father Joe for the April 1999 issue of Vietnam magazine. I found the interview when I googled Father Joe’s name, and I was pleasantly surprised at the exchange between the professor of a secular university and a priest who otherwise could have been overlooked by history.
In the interview, Father Joe does not recount the threats to his life during his years in Vietnam but focuses, instead, on the efforts to get out of Vietnam and extricate his people, the refugees he had helped at Camp Pendleton. Later, he refers to the plight of another group of Vietnamese refugees who fled to Thailand. His account of their ordeal is both horrifying and uplifting.
In the interview, Father Joe said, “Someone from the CIA came to the village and tried to get me out and to Saigon. I went along because they ordered me. And when I got to Saigon I went to see George Jacobson at the U.S. Embassy and said, ‘Mr. Jacobson, please, I left my village too soon and I want to go back to it. Do you think you can help me? I don't want to run away like this.’ He replied, ‘I understand. We have a small plane going to Nha Trang this afternoon, and if you want to get on it, you can, and it will drop you off at Phan Thiết.’ So, I got on it and went back to my people, and they gave me a big ovation when they saw I'd come back.”
This speaks to Father Joe’s selfless concern for his people, which is the highest form of Christ-likeness few of us will ever be forced to exercise.
As I delved further into the interview, I discovered something else -- the source of my peculiar kind of Catholicism.
Father Joe said, “I never put what I did in a religious context. There is a famous expression: Primum est esse, quam esse tale. It means that before you become something, you have to first exist. With the refugees I thought it was more important . . . to try to keep the refugees in existence, give them being, before I tried to make Catholics out of them . . . Because, as that expression [Primum est] tells you, you must first keep a man in existence before you try to make him something different. A man or woman must be able to live first before they can become anything. So, my effort has not been, primarily, a religious effort. Because I don’t like to change a person’s religion. I want him to do his own thinking and then do what he thinks is the proper thing. But there is a very important step in his life first, and that is to keep him in existence, to hold him up, to be his brother . . .”
I found myself agreeing with the Latin phrase, Primum est esse, quam esse tale – before you can become anything, first you must exist. My personal contact with the Vietnamese diaspora in San Francisco and San Jose in the 1980s can attest to that. I did not try to convert anyone. I attended several Buddhist services, but I never considered another faith, and I was never a seeker. I had already found truth. Nevertheless, in my own ragged way, I tried to help the Vietnamese exist in America. In the process I had to apply what I knew to situations which were sometimes difficult, awkward, or unfamiliar. In a previous blog post called My Experience with the Vietnamese Community, I described how I had to push through situations as best as I could; I may have erred and rationalized, but I was always learning . . . and learning from others who were like me, yet different.
As I continued to read the interview, I saw something more startling. Father Joe said, “I don’t feel guided by the holy spirit or anything in my work. Not really. I don’t look at my work with the Vietnamese from a religious point of view. I pray but not too much. And my prayers are not always answered. I never expected divine intervention in Vietnam. I just felt that God . . . says, ‘You got to do your own work, fella. So, do it.’ And so, I did it.”
Like Father Joe, I don’t pray that much, and I don’t ask God for help. Many Catholics would criticize me for saying that, but, like Father Joe, I know God expects me to do the work. He just watches. I don’t expect divine intervention, although there are times when I ask for it. Has divine intervention ever happened in my life? I don’t think so. God has come to me through my parents, three conversion experiences before I reached 18, and other people, some in small ways and others, mostly priests and largely in the confessional, in a big way.
Father Joe may have lived a heroic life in Vietnam, and it’s possible he could be canonized someday, but we should step away from a fascination with saints long enough to hear the real feelings and thoughts of a man who only did what he thought was necessary.
Father Joe’s Catholicism and its impact on his people was real. The way he applied his faith was multiplied like the loaves and fishes by the people he cared about, as reflected in the following quote: “I think the people I helped remember me sometimes. I think I live in their hearts . . . I can remember their faces but not their names. I can’t even speak their language. But I am sure they remember me . . . If they remember me, they will someday be inspired and perhaps do good also, and if they do, when they do, then what I did was worth it . . ..”
What I learned from Jesuits like Father Joe is real and practical, namely, duty and purpose. Most men are task oriented, and my brother and I and the Jesuits are no exception. The Jesuits gave us an understanding of what a man is and what he should be about, and for that, my brother and I will be grateful forever.
Here are some links to the interview and other treasures:
The interview: http://www.historynet.com/joe-devlin-the-boat-peoples-priest.htm
For more about Father Joe, there is a short biography on Amazon which can be found here
Vietnam is about 10% Catholic, and the faith is flourishing. Learn more here
For those interested in a little more about history, see a fascinating Fordham University speech given by Madame Nhu, an important and influential Catholic in Vietnam during the 1960s.
Then, check out my novel, Pretty City Murder, and try to figure out how the novel multiplies Catholic realism and the peculiar kind of faith best exemplified by Father Joe.
As you know, my faith is important to me, and so I like to incorporate elements of the Catholic religion into my work. Pretty City Murder is my attempt to portray Catholic realism. The novel is not about saints or people living lives of heroic virtue. It is about real people trying to live according to the Ten Commandments, the foundation of the Catholic moral code.
Realism obliges a person to accept his faults and take steps to correct them, which begins with an examination of conscience before confession. It is inside the confessional where one’s pride falls to the floor – not the pride that everyone needs to thrive, but the pride that prevents a person from making an honest appraisal of himself.
There is a scene in my novel that highlights the need to confess. In this scene, Joyce Contorado goes to Father Ralph for confession and expresses her love for him again. There is an earlier episode at James O’Hara’s home and one in the sacristy that reveals an inappropriate relationship between Joyce and Father Ralph. He tells her to go to another priest because he is involved in the same sin; he has the same feelings for her. One could say, rather crudely, that the pedal hits the metal in the confessional – in this unusual case, for both priest and penitent.
A good confession is in three parts: 1) a penitent admits that she has done something wrong, 2) she expresses remorse and 3) she promises not to do it again.
In Joyce’s confession, she has not admitted to doing something wrong and she has not broken off the affair. Her confession is not complete, because she isn’t really asking God for forgiveness.
Her sin and Father Ralph’s sin and their attempt to overcome it is an example of Catholic realism. Neither Joyce nor Father Ralph are saints, and neither is living a life of heroic virtue. They can amend their error and go back to confession, but a firm purpose of amendment must be present.
Dissenters, too, cannot go to confession, because they object to some part of the moral code or because they are living a life that does not conform to it. There are examples of dissenters in my novel.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Catholic realism in Pretty City Murder! It is available on Amazon. Spread the word and write a review.
One of the police inspectors in Pretty City Murder is a Vietnamese-American. On the surface, this may seem like an unusual choice. However, throughout my life I've had a lot of contact with the Vietnamese diasporic community in San Francisco and San Jose and I’ve always wanted to write about it.
In 1981, I befriended a young man who fled Vietnam in April 1975, when Saigon fell to the communists. His story proved extra poignant because he was 21 in 1975 and had taken three of his siblings, ages 17, 14, and 8, with him. His mother had passed away a few years before, and his father had refused to leave Vietnam. He told his son that he wouldn’t know how to survive outside his country. Back in 1954, the family had fled Hanoi. By Vietnamese standards, they were well-to-do.
My friend became guardian for his younger siblings, which was a heavy burden for someone who was just 21. When we met, he was 27 and I was 28, and his youngest brother, who was then 13, was living with him. We became fast friends, and he introduced me to others commonly referred to as “the boat people”. He practiced Vietnamese Buddhism, and I attended their services, mostly in the homes of the diasporic community in San Jose. I met a former South Vietnamese general, who was such a kind, old gentleman. Often, I was the only Caucasian person at the services, but I felt welcomed, and they treated me like an honored guest. I’m Catholic, and exposure to another religion uplifted me and helped me understand my own faith better.
My friend was self-employed. He opened a business which imitated the Supercuts model for haircuts and styling, and after expanding to two salons, he was making much more money than I. Because his ability to read English was poor, I did his bookkeeping. He had never received any formal education in English, but he had an excellent American accent, surely acquired from listening to, and speaking with, hundreds and hundreds of American soldiers on the streets of Saigon. In 2004, I purchased a tutoring franchise and used what I had learned from him to maximize my profits.
Once, during our years of friendship, we attended a Vietnamese concert in San Jose, and he asked the featured singer, Lệ Thu, to sing a song and dedicate it to me. I was flattered. My friend had come to know Lệ Thu and Khánh Ly, another famous singer, when he was still living in Saigon.
Another time, my friend introduced me to a Vietnamese woman running a brothel in San Francisco near the Stockton tunnel. I won’t say the name, to protect the innocent (or the guilty). We visited for several hours, and, no, not for nefarious reasons. She prepared lunch for us, which was delicious, and we sat on floor mats covering the floor of her office. At one point, we were interrupted by one of her girls, complaining or asking for direction (in Vietnamese), and she, too, was lovely. My eyes opened to the reality of survival, and I found that I had no negative feelings for her business. This experience left me with a new understanding and empathy for others.
My overall experience with the Vietnamese community in America was extremely positive and greatly enriched my life. As a tribute to the community, I made one of the police inspectors in my novel a Vietnamese-American. I fashioned him after a patrol officer I had worked with at the Academy of Art University. He was Cambodian, not Vietnamese, but I needed a visual while I wrote, and he was so unusual and interesting that he became the visual. He knows he’s in the book.
I get excited whenever I hear the Vietnamese language. Though I don’t speak a word, I know it when I hear it. I follow current Vietnamese singers on You Tube, such as the lovely Băng Tâm, just so I can hear the language. In my time spent with the Vietnamese community, I attempted to learn how to speak the language but whenever I uttered a Vietnamese phrase, such as “Saigon Dep Lam,” my dear listeners would say, “What?” My pronunciation was so bad that I knew I would have to immediately follow up with what I had to say – in English.
Although I’ve never been to Vietnam, I have a fond spot for this country in my heart. Vietnamese cuisine is definitely among my top five, and, yes, I can smell fish sauce a mile away, and Phở is the best soup in the world. Today, the country is recovering because it is an entrepreneurial society with great investment potential. Religion is making a resurgence. Catholicism always does well under persecution.
There are many videos of Saigon and Hanoi on YouTube, and I encourage you to take a look.
Here is a current video of the Saigon streets, motorcycles, and businesses, and here you will find a famous song known by almost every Vietnamese man, woman, and child. I hope you will take a look!
I would love to hear from American soldiers or people who did business, or are doing business in Vietnam, and, of course, I would love to hear from the diasporic community and readers in Vietnam today.
If you’d like to see my Asian character in action, the Amazon link is below. And, if you have a Kindle, the book will be available for free from June 19 - June 23.
Thank you so much for reading!
Purchase Pretty City Murder here
In previous posts, I've discussed how my novel was inspired by my own life experiences and personal beliefs. Like other writers though, my work has also been greatly influenced by other artists and works of art.
Two of the most influential writers are Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler. Greene was a Catholic writer, so I connected to that perspective of his work. He wrote over 25 novels that explored moral and political issues. Pretty City Murder also explores significant issues, though a little different from Greene's.
Raymond Chandler is another author who inspired me. He is one of the most widely-known novelists of crime fiction and suspense. If you haven't been introduced to his work, I recommend you read one of his books!
My work is also inspired by television and film. Most of my favorite TV series are cop dramas and true crime series. I admired San Francisco Beat and Perry Mason in the 1950s-1960s, and the Streets of San Francisco in the 1970s, and I enjoy watching current fare, such as Investigation Discovery (Deadly Women!), Forensic Files, and Snapped.
When it comes to film, I enjoy Film Noir, especially the films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Visually, I just don't think the films made today compare (below I've put some images from my favorite films!).
I've been told that Pretty City Murder has an "Old Hollywood" vibe in that it has a lot of the themes that are explored in the classic works of Film Noir, which probably comes from my love of old movies, but I think my novel feels contemporary in the social and moral issues explored.
I hope you've enjoyed reading about the art that inspired me, and I hope you will look at some of the work that I have mentioned here, and please purchase Pretty City Murder.
Here is a link to purchase my book.
The Lineup (1958)
Rear Window (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
My protagonist in Pretty City Murder is a San Francisco police officer named Larry Leahy. This character was formed by my own experiences in law enforcement. His decisions in the book are made using the protocol that I used in my own line of work, and the procedures that are used by him and his fellow officers are based on the methodology for investigating crimes in real life.
For some years, I worked at the Academy of Art University. Sometimes, when people saw me on duty, they were confused over whether I was a security guard or a police officer. In fact, I was neither; I was a non-sworn, uniformed, unarmed patrol officer.
There are similarities and differences in the functions performed by security guards, patrol officers, and police officers. At the Academy of Art University, I performed all the functions of a security officer and a police officer, except that I did not have the power to arrest or detain. Often, I interviewed a target before the police arrived and then sat in on the police interview. Our interviews were virtually the same.
A security guard reports on what he's seen but does not conduct investigations. In contrast, I led short and long investigations into missing persons, threats of violence, graffiti, stalking, homeless encampments, burglary, robbery, sexual assault, marijuana possession or selling, and students with suicide ideation. I responded to elevator entrapments and sick or injured students.
The school where I worked has over 400 security cameras, and we viewed them every day. In Pretty City Murder, the hotel, which is the scene of the murder, has security cameras, and the inspectors on the case view videotape, but, as is the case so often, much about the crime is still unknown.
In my own experience, security cameras can be crucial for solving cases. In one instance, I relied on one of our campus safety hosts to find a student who had taken school property. She spent hours viewing several cameras and eventually found the thief. He was expelled. We were stupefied over the reckless actions taken by a student who had been in good standing, and we were saddened to see him go.
If you are interested in crime stories, you'll definitely enjoy my book. My experience in law enforcement adds realism to the story, but Pretty City Murder still has many elements from classic crime fiction novels.
You can purchase Pretty City Murder here.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy your weekend!
Pretty City Murder is finally here! I’m so excited to share it with all of you, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
In this post, I want to share a little about religion in my book and how I crafted my work from my own life experiences and beliefs. They say that you should “write what you know”, so I guess it makes sense that my book centers on religion.
I am a Roman Catholic. My stepfather-to-be, Joe, had recommended St. Ignatius High School to my older brother, Tom. Joe was Catholic, but my family was not. When Tom decided to go to St. Ignatius, he was enrolled in religion class. His teacher heard that Tom was not Catholic and asked if he wanted to convert. As Tom recalls, he said, “Um . . . okay.” (Ha!)
His religion teacher gave us instruction at home. I wasn’t seeking religion, and I had never even seen a priest before, but none of that mattered. After just a few words from the priest, I received the gifts of understanding and faith. Don’t underestimate children! My family was baptized on April 1, 1961--April Fool’s Day. God was laughing, but it was serious business.
San Francisco has a very large Catholic community. Even today in SF, there are 25,000 students in Catholic schools and 55,000 in public schools. I know two religious – Jesuits – who left to marry, but two of my classmates from St. Ignatius, who became Jesuits, are still happy priests.
There was even a time in my own life when I considered the priesthood.
What really attracted me to religious life was living in a religious community. Religious life is based on family life. There are no real differences, as the religious community you join becomes your family in every way. By the end of high school, I had been around priests for seven years, and I saw in them fathers and brothers. I might have joined, but I never did.
Perhaps, my own thoughts about joining the priesthood explain why I wanted one of the main characters in my novel to be a priest. This character is named Father Ralph, and he is trying to come to terms with the murder while facing a midlife crisis. He must choose between his vows and having a chance at romantic love.
Father Ralph’s struggle mirrors the struggle I might have faced had I ultimately decided to take vows.
Would I have left religious life if I had become a priest? I don’t think so—but I don’t know for sure. Father Ralph is also directly based on someone that I knew growing up. It’s a rather scandalous story! A priest in my dad’s family actually left the priesthood in his sixties for a woman. My mom described her as “dumpy.” My mother thought she was not worth the loss of a vocation. There were even rumors that before he left he was having an affair with someone else – a very handsome woman who was a prominent member of society.
Pretty City Murder also explores characters who are struggling with ideas of right and wrong and who commit various sins—adultery, murder, robbery, cohabiting, and more. My own personal ideas about morality are reflected in my work—and those ideas, of course, ultimately come from the Almighty.
Today, I am active in the Church. I am currently involved in setting up three youth groups in my parish of All Souls, South San Francisco: ages 11-13, 14-17, 18-40.
Obviously, you’ll have to read the novel to get a better understanding of what I have referenced here (which I hope you will!). The amazon link is provided below. I also hope you’ll leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads!
If you have any questions about the Catholic faith, or, if you would like to share your experiences, please send an e-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great week!
Purchase Pretty City Murder here!
Pretty City Murder is officially available on Amazon! Click here to purchase!
Kindle Free days are June 19, 2018, through June 23, 2018. Be sure to download your free copy.
About the photographs
Credit goes to Allan Pineda, photo enthusiast, Academy of Art University, San Francisco resident, dear friend of many years, and amazing artist! These are some recent pictures he took. They are the Blue Angels, City Hall, St. Patrick's Day Parade, Palace of Fine Arts, fog, cable car, the Bay Bridge (a stock picture), and Chinese New Year Parade.
About San Francisco
There are 120 unique neighborhoods in San Francisco. The considerable number of neighborhoods is the result of hills that form unofficial boundaries. Development accelerated after the Gold Rush in 1848. City planners laid a grid over the new city, and the result was steep, straight streets, but it was inevitable that some streets would curve around the hills and disrupt the well-ordered grid. Market Street, the city’s main street, dislocated the grid, too. The Outlands, a name applied to the western half of San Francisco, developed more slowly, and sand was everywhere. John McLaren’s Golden Gate Park was built on the sand. The park is four miles in length and extends from Stanyan Street to the Great Highway, which runs along Ocean Beach, a cold and blustery place with a wicked undertow. Fog often obscures the Golden Gate Bridge, and the weather is generally cool.
About the novel
Walk into the Greenwich Grand Hotel, a twelve-story edifice in downtown, and see its basement, where the owner keeps his Silver Cloud Rolls Royce. Foot it to Central Station, a fortress of graying concrete in North Beach, and here you meet the main character, Inspector Larry Leahy, 59. He spends most of his days pouring over reports with his trainee, Inspector Hieu Trang, 30, with boyish, movie-star looks. Climb the hill to Loyola House and bump into Father Ralph MacKenzie rushing to a meeting of his colleagues, deans at the University of San Francisco. Drive through the cobblestone pillars marking the entrance to Sea Cliff and see the Greenwich’s owner, James O’Hara, as he prepares for a 4th of July gala. There are no gated communities in San Francisco, and residents and tourists alike can move about freely, including criminals.
As of 5-10-18, almost 8,000 people are engaged with the novel on its Face Book page.
About the author
My name is Robert Dunn. I’m called Bob. I grew up in San Francisco. I worked at the Academy of Art University from 2008 to 2016 as a patrol officer and drew upon my experiences to write this novel. I hope you enjoy it.