I woke up this morning to find the following email in my inbox:
“As a former chaplain in a senior home, I was drawn to your mysteries. However, in the third book of short stories featuring John Jordan, I became very disappointed in your portrayal of a Christian chaplain with low morals in relation to women. His sexual prowess is certainly not in keeping with a follower of Jesus who seeks to emanate the life of Christ in every area of life. Therefore, I will not continue reading your books and will not recommend them to friends.”
I realize this reader’s reaction says far more about him than John Jordan, but it got me thinking.
During nearly twenty years of writing about John Jordan, I’ve been hearing versions of this same complaint—the kind of complaint I seriously doubt Michael Connelly ever receives.
Nobody complains when Harry Bosch has sex. Nor should they.
Me, I’m happy when Harry gets some.
And I bet most readers are.
So why not for John Jordan?
Of course the reader above doesn’t represent all readers—or even most—but he does represent far too many.
The irony of his criticism isn’t just that John is an extremely moral and honorable person who is careful and thoughtful in all areas of his life—including and especially his sexuality, but that the very person the reader claims to be disappointed on the behalf of was accused of the same thing. Jesus was accused of low morals in relation to women, even referred to as a whoremonger—something that hasn’t happened to John yet. But give me time.
John Jordan is a detective in a hard-boiled mystery series. He’s a person of faith. He’s a chaplain. But first and foremost, and before he was any of those things, he’s a human being.
And as humans go John Jordan isn’t just moral—I’d say he’s honorable. Perhaps even heroic.
In terms of his sex life in the books, I’d say if anything he has too little sex, not too much.
In the ten books I’ve written about John Jordan so far, I’d say there are some six sex scenes. Not even one per book. Hell, I feel bad for the guy. And am doing something about it. It’s a good thing this reader stopped with book three because—Whoa Nelly!—book nine and ten might just cause him to pop an aneurism.
Is the dichotomy and disingenuousness expressed by the reader a result of the Puritanical strain that continues to infect the DNA of our culture in the way the Pharisaical strain does so much of our religion? Would the reader approve (and recommend my series to his friends) if John Jordan was more like Arthur Dimmesdale, punishing himself for rather than enjoying his sexuality?
In addition to this disease of self-righteous Puritanism, perhaps it’s also the desire on the part of some not to see the humanity of those they want to prop up on pedestals and hero worship. They may acknowledge on an intellectual level that a spiritual leader is a human being, but they certainly don’t want to see it.
Literature itself could bear some of the blame. If most clerics are portrayed as saintly or sinister, inhuman or inhumane then a reader might not be prepared for a character like John.
As a character I’d say John Jordan is far more in the mold of what Raymond Chandler wrote about the detective than anything else. Chandler said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”
And it’s not just readers who hold John to a false and ridiculous double standard. Reviewers do it too.
Reviewers often refer to John Jordan as flawed. Nothing wrong with that, right? He is, after all, very flawed. But so is everyone else. Do reviewers continually point out how flawed Harry Bosch is? Of course not. Why would they? It’s an obvious remark not worth making. Is John more flawed than Harry? I don’t think so, but for the sake of argument, let’s say he is. Is he significantly more flawed—enough that it needs to be pointed out over and over?
It’s okay for Bosch to be flawed in the same way it’s okay for him to have sex. It’s even okay for my other series detective Jimmy “Soldier” Riley. Just not John.
I’m using Harry Bosch here because of my love and respect for him and his creator, but I could easily use Lee Child’s Jack Reacher or James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux—the latter of whom is not only a detective by a deeply religious man. But because he’s not a cleric, he’s not subjected to the double standard.
Harry Bosch is a cop. Jimmy Riley is a 1940s PI. But John? John is a man of the cloth.
And thanks to the mentality of readers like the one mentioned above this man of the cloth often feels like he’s being choked by the collar around his neck.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been tempted to have John Jordan transition out of prison chaplaincy and back into official law enforcement. It would make my and John’s life so much easier. It’s truly tempting. John could be far, far more flawed or immoral than he is now and I would never receive an email like the one above. But I truly believe the world needs John Jordan to be both a chaplain and a detective. Being a flawed person of faith who both thirsts for justice and minsters mercy is what makes John Jordan who he is—is what makes the series what it is. To me the difficulty of doing his two seemingly disparate callings—to investigate crime and to administer compassion—is what gives John Jordan and the series the kind of tension and conflict that provides genuine depth and richness. At least that is my hope.
The truth is I don’t mind that religious Fundamentalists don’t read my books. From what I understand they’re not really supposed to be taking time away from their Bible reading anyway. What I do find far more frustrating is the number of readers who would really like the series and truly appreciate who and how John Jordan is but won’t even pick up the books because they (wrongly) believe that the character they encounter will be preachy or self-righteous or repressed—in short, the very things the reader who emailed me is disappointed he is not.