Extemporania: St. Dismas at the 12th Precinct


Living a Dortmunderian life, I’ve struggled to get back to my Dortmunderian blogging. It’s not that I have nothing to write about, I just struggle for the time and concentration to get the work done. So many distractions from what was once my most pleasurable distraction from the quotidian exigencies of daily existence (I mentioned my life was Dortmunderian, did I not?)

So just to write about something, and remind myself it’s possible–how come none of the Barney Miller fans among my regulars ever brought this up?

It used to be very hard to watch Barney Miller in syndication With the advent of old people cable channels selling dubious life insurance policies, reverse mortgages, and of course pillows made by crazy men, what’s left of us Boomers can revisit all kinds of blurry childhood memories–but because I live in Gotham itself, I can actually watch my favorite sitcom cops on WPIX. (WPIX still exists! I passed their midtown offices just the other day!) The picture quality is a little better, and the commercials a mite less depressing.

For a while there, Herself (also a fan) and myself were binge-watching; lately it’s more hit or miss. But some weeks back, I recorded an ep I had no past recollection of, and at some point I realized I was in the presence of a subtextual Westlake homage.

The Brother is just a run-of-the-mill ep where various oddball personages descend upon the 12th to perplex the good officers with their varied quirks and conundrums, always with Barney in the background, dispensing wry homespun wisdom like a Solomon come to judgment, but without threatening to bisect any babies. (I presume that would be illegal now.)

Only one of the plot threads need concern us–Brother Thomas Kelvin, a stern-faced older man dressed in clerical garb files a missing person report with Wojciehowicz (I shamefully admit I copy/pasted the name from Wikipedia). A novitiate has gone missing from their hotel, just before they were going to catch a train upstate.

The good brother (Not a priest! Don’t call him Father! He hates that!) hails from a monastery in the Adirondacks–the order of St. Dismas. He is not asked to to explain who St. Dismas is, which I suppose is reasonable enough, since it doesn’t in any way impact the case–except wouldn’t Dietrich tell everyone anyway?

You’d expect a brief hagiography lecture from the 12th’s resident know-it-all, but Dietrich is sadly distracted in this episode by learning to his deep distress (I can’t offhand think of an ep where he looked sad for such a protracted period) that he can’t credibly pose as a woman to entrap would-be muggers. Just shortly before this, he was happily asking a befuddled Barney which silk scarf would go better with his new ensemble. Scarlet or wheat?

(And there’s a subplot involving Inspector Luger feeling lonely and bending Barney’s ear about it, but that’s basically every ep, right?)

Turns out, finding himself amidst the infamous fleshpots of Gotham, the young man experienced a sort of secondary vocation, centered around getting laid prior to renouncing worldly pleasures. He had encountered one of the many good-natured and appealingly blowsy young courtesans that one finds in many a Barney Miller episode (and so rarely in real life, which as we all know is greatly overrated).

They were just about to commence with the deflowering when the authorities rudely interrupted. The working girl even imputes she might not have charged for her services, which is really twisting the knife. Wojo, ever sympathetic to the mating urge, slyly arranges for the novitiate to proceed with his initiation, while Brother Kelvin and the others head north. We never learn which vocation won out in the end, but he had a nice vacation either way.

Decent enough outing, for the late run of this show. They had lost a few too many key cast members by this point. (I like Levitt, who doesn’t, but his height insecurity and desire to ditch the uniform for plainclothes were no substitute for Fish’s endless kvetching, or Nick’s horrible coffee.)

Leaving that completely irrelevant fan-bitching aside–what makes me so sure this is a Westlake homage? Good Behavior, which prominently mentions the penitent of the two crucified thieves, was published in 1985. This episode was aired in October of 1979. How do we know Westlake wasn’t homaging Barney? Seems a fair bet he watched when he had the time.

Ah, but that was the second instance of Westlake namechecking the light-fingered saint. The first was in Brothers Keepers, published in 1975, and reviewed by the Times in May of that year. Meaning that the TV scribes had at least three years to get around to it, and get just a teensy bit light-fingered themselves. (Not that the storylines match up terribly well, and if they had, no doubt the legal department would have insisted on a different saint).

And as you all should know, Brothers Keepers involves a young Catholic brother who himself takes a sexy sabbatical with a beautiful young woman, though she’s not a pro, and they’re in Puerto Rico, which I’m pretty sure qualifies as a dispensation. I’ll check with my confessor later.

But more to the point, one of the denizens of the equally fictive Crispinite order in that novel used to be a criminal himself, briefly belonged to an order of felonious monks (Westlake hated giving up that jazz-based pun that was going to be his title, but found he respected his monks too much to make them into crooks, even of the comic variety). They chose St. Dismas as their patron, and according to Brother Silas, this monastery was nothing more than a heinous hideout created by ex-cons to go on being the same irreformable reprobates they were before.

So there is my case, ladies and gentlemen of the jury–but being an honest prosecutor (I’m sure there must be some), I must mention one piece of evidence that might argue for an alternate explanation. There is in fact a Church of St. Dismas in upstate New York, if not a monastery. And if you’d believe it, it’s in none other than the picturesque hamlet of Dannemora. Westlake country par excellence. And the setting of yet another of his Nephew books, that was published in 1974. (But seriously, whoever named that church had a Westlakeian sense of humor, so I think my case still holds water).

One more observation I must relate, though–see, the writers had to find a way to justify the 12th going to look for the missing monk trainee. He hasn’t been gone anywhere near 48 hours. Brother Kelvin, determined to get his inductee back, insists he may have been abducted by deprogrammers, anti-cultists–there were some suspicious characters hanging out in the hotel lobby. Wojo says “But you’re the Catholic Church.” Kelvin says that to some people they’re just the nuts on the hill. The parents may have objected to their son’s vocation. It’s enough to keep the story moving. If you don’t think about it too much–never a good idea, even if you’re watching the best sitcom ever, which Barney Miller very nearly is.

But you know how Westlake was–always scavenging ideas he felt hadn’t been given a good enough shake. Suppose somebody had a sincere vocation, joined a religious order–maybe a convent this time–and suppose her father was a rich bastard who objected to this, had her kidnapped, hired a deprogrammer specializing in cultists to talk her out of it? And as it turns out, the Brothers of St. Dismas, while not committed to a strict vow of silence, minimize vocal communication as much as possible when at the monastery (this perhaps explains why Brother Kelvin never stops gabbing for most of the episode, but has little aptitude for pleasant conversation). Probably they write notes instead.

It’s just a thought. I still have them, sometimes. I have some more, about a mystery writer I just recently discovered, who has openly confessed his debt to Westlake–most specifically, to Richard Stark. He’s published three crime novels thus far. I’ve read them all. Also something with a ridiculous number of swords in it. We won’t dwell on that one much.

There see? I can still write. If you want to call it that. Let me limber up a bit more, and maybe I can get up to speed again. In the meantime, you can easily watch The Brother on Video Dailymotion, if you want to form your own opinion of its provenance. But man, if you thought the old people cable channel ads were depressing………


Filed under Donald Westlake, Uncategorized

7 responses to “Extemporania: St. Dismas at the 12th Precinct

  1. Greg Tulonen

    Boy, if ever a post was Greg Tulonen bait, this one is it. (I have every episode loaded onto my phone, and I may someday yet make good on my threat to launch a Barney Miller review blog.)

    See also the 1977 episode, “Abduction,” in which a middle-aged couple asks the squad to rescue their daughter from a cult, which turns out to be a relatively harmless New-Age hippie-ish health food restaurant (run by a bearded, robed cleric played by the great David Clennon, a Barney Miller five-timer). When the squad can be no help, the couple tries to kidnap their daughter.

    • I remember that one. I kind of sympathized with the parents, much as they overreacted. But it’s pretty rare for parents to treat a child joining a Catholic religious order as if they were joining a cult (I guess it could be more common now….).

      It was, however, very common for rich nobles in the Middle Ages to object to their marriageable daughters becoming nuns–happened to St. Clare of Assisi. She was supposed to marry some ne’er do well count or other, and produce heirs. Her cult leader was named Francis, but he encouraged her to develop her own franchise. Very modern, no?

      Her father tried to bring her home by force (this in the Age of Faith!). She clung to the altar of the convent chapel and in the end prevailed. They didn’t have deprogrammers then. Well, I guess you could say the Inquisition, but they would have been on her side. (Unless she got lippy.) So anyway, that’s where Westlake’s mind might have wandered when he heard Brother Kelvin’s accusation. Him being the Dietrich of our precinct.

      My demographic research paid off! You have to know your audience. Now where’s Mike? Right now, I’ve only got a 50 share. Still pretty good. Though I figure I can forget the 18-25 demo. Until they get older. Or wiser.

  2. Tom

    So, as a child of the 80’s, I’m too young to remember this show. I’ll have to check it out. But you say it’s ‘very nearly the best sitcom ever’….so what’s the best one in your estimation?

    • The Honeymooners. I like Lucy, no denying the massive influence, but it was a show about show people. The Honeymooners showed that a sitcom could be about ordinary working people leading fairly desperate lives, and still somehow enjoying themselves. Not one but two genius character actors, and basically every ep is an immortal classic. (I include the segments for the variety show that aired before and after the half-hour sitcom, that were ‘rediscovered’ later, though they aren’t as focused).

      I think one could argue that just as every crime novel comes out of either the Hammett or Chandler school, every sitcom comes either out of the Ralph or Lucy school.

      Barney Miller came 100% from the Ralph school (whereas the MTM shows, which I loved but don’t watch much anymore, were all Lucy). In some respects, even more focused and gritty–only time I recall that it was ever shot outside the squad room (leaving aside the pilot where we saw a bit of Barney’s home life) was when Barney went to jail for refusing to divulge sources.

      Please note, The Honeymooners–the real show, not the watered-down revisiting of it Gleason did in Miami, that I don’t recognize as canonical–was all in the can before I was in the womb. Great sitcoms don’t age, and the best will find fanbases in every generation. However, there are issues with the actual visual quality of the Barney Miller eps, and those had better be addressed soon.

      I mean, for Ron Glass alone, Barney Miller ranks at the top. Every cast member stood out, but there’s never been anyone like Detective Harris, before or since. TV, sitcoms most of all, is a writer’s medium, and who did they pick to be the aspiring writer, living or dying with each publisher’s check or rejection note? A character actor on the same level as Art Carney, finding that one opportunity to shine (at least Carney got to make a few decent films afterwards). All this time later, it’s hard to find any half hour comedy where a black character just existed–not separate from his race, but not welded to it–it was never all he was. Not even the faintest whiff of tokenism there. Because the character was just too deep to be typed that way. And of course, in the beginning, he wasn’t the only minority on the show.

      My only beef is that none of the squad members were Irish (which a huge percentage of the NYPD still is, for good and ill). Even though the head writer was named Sheehan. I bet you anything he created the noxious Scanlan from Internal Affairs. We are a fair race, and never speak well of each other. 😉

  3. Amy FK

    Tangentially related: Lawrence Block’s gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr has thanked St. Dismas more than once in the Burglar series.

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