Thursday, February 15, 2018

Searching For The D.C. Man: A Paperback Warrior Investigation

Was it possible that a Roman Catholic priest was secretly writing sexy spy novels on the side under a fake name during the 1970s? The search for answers brought me down a wormhole to one of the strangest – and most satisfying – searches for authorship that I’ve ever encountered.

In 1974 and 1975, Berkley Medallion released four books in a Men’s Adventure series called 'The D.C. Man' by James P. Cody. The series hero is Brian Peterson, a former military intelligence operative who becomes a D.C. lobbyist. After a personal tragedy, his lobbying business floundered, and he reinvented himself as a gun-toting troubleshooter for elected officials with sensitive problems. If you need someone to stick a gun in the mouth of a blackmailer targeting a Senator, Brian’s your man. If a subcommittee discreetly needs to know who is leaking secrets to foreign powers, give Brian a call. The books have a nice balance of political intrigue, hard-boiled detective work, and sexy espionage action. Read the review for series debut "Top Secret Kill" here.

When reading 'The D.C. Man' paperbacks, the reader’s first impression is that the books are extremely well written. The first-person narration flows smoothly and conversationally, and Brian’s observations about life inside the beltway are astute and mature. They read more like Donald Hamilton’s early 'Matt Helm' novels than, say, a disposable 'Nick Carter: Killmaster' book. Although Berkley packaged and sold these short novels as cheap James Bond knock-offs, it’s clear that the author took real care in crafting these stories. They weren’t rush jobs written for a quick paycheck.

All of which begs the question: Who the heck was James P. Cody?

Google and Amazon searches weren’t much help initially. There was no indication that Cody wrote anything else. 'The D.C. Man' series also never received much coverage from the various go-to blogs or Facebook groups that obsess over vintage Men’s Adventure fiction. The series just wasn’t commercially successful enough to garner much love or nostalgia 40+ years later. 

As with many mysteries, the answer of authorship was right under my nose: the copyright page of 'The D.C. Man' paperbacks credits Peter T. Rohrbach as the writer. This was also confirmed by an entry in the 1974 Catalog of Copyright Entries: Cody was a pseudonym, and Rohrbach was the author.

In that case, who the heck was Peter T. Rohrbach?

The confusion intensified with a simple search for the name “Peter T. Rohrbach” on Amazon. That search revealed a handful of academic books about historical Roman Catholic figures and religious orders written by someone named “Peter Thomas Rohrbach.” Books such as “Conversations With Christ” and “Journey to Carith” stood in sharp contrast to the breezy covers on 'The D.C. Man' books by James P. Cody. However, it wasn’t impossible to imagine a non-fiction writer trying to make a few extra bucks by tossing off some cheapo spy novels during the heyday of the espionage paperback original.

However, the “About the Author” in “Conversations with Christ” lead me to conclude that the two Rohrbachs were most likely different people:

The Rev. Father Peter Thomas Rohrbach, O.C.D., is a Carmelite priest and author. Born in 1926 and based in Washington, D.C., he has also served as an editor for the Catholic quarterly “Spiritual Life”. His “Conversation with Christ”, dedicated to our Lady of Mount Carmel, was first published in 1956 by Fides Publisher, Illinois, with the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur. Father Rohrbach's work was also printed by TAN in 2010.

There’s a lot to unpack in this short bio. The first thing was that the Rohrbach who wrote the religious books was, in fact, a Catholic priest of the Carmelite Order whose specialty is cloistered and contemplative prayer. Apparently, Father Rohrbach was a big deal in the world of Catholic academic scholarship as receiving a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur for a book is tantamount to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from the Vatican. It’s like a Super Bowl ring for a Catholic author.

I telephoned the Carmelite rectory in Washington, D.C. on the off chance that Father Rohrbach may still be alive at age 91. The priest who answered the phone remembered Father Rohrbach and informed me that he had died several years ago. The priest was kind but informed me that no one remained whose memories of Father Rohrbach would be vivid enough to answer my questions. I dashed off an email to the Carmelites’ publishing arm on the off chance that someone there might have a lead for me.

I also spoke to author and publisher Lee Goldberg, who is no stranger to pseudonyms in adventure fiction. Goldberg began his career in the 1980s writing the '.357 Vigilante' series under the name Ian Ludlow and currently reprints vintage paperbacks under his Brash Books publishing arm. Goldberg was also a fan of 'The D.C. Man' series. “I looked at these three years ago as possible Brash reprints and put our P.I. on it to find out who now had the rights. I don’t think she got any farther than you did before I had her stop and look into a different author, and we never circled back.”

A search of the 1980 edition of “Writers Directory” and the 2004 edition of “International Who’s Who of Author’s and Writers” provided both clarity and confusion. The brief biographies confirmed that Peter Thomas Rohrbach also wrote as James P. Cody and was born in 1926. Both the religious books and 'The D.C. Man' books are credited to Rohrbach in the bibliographies. The Who’s Who listing indicates that Rohrbach married a woman named Sheila Sheehan in September 1970, and neither directory mentioned Rohrbach being a Catholic priest. While it’s not completely impossible for a Catholic priest to have a wife and kids at some point, it is exceedingly rare. 

The 1980 “Writers Directory” listed a street address for Rohrbach in suburban Washington, D.C., and some online reverse directory searches located his wife and a daughter named Sarah, who was born in 1974 – the year of 'The D.C. Man’s' debut. Some further searches led me to Sarah’s cell phone number, and I promptly left her a rambling voicemail asking her to call me back.

Two lucky breaks happened almost simultaneously: Sarah called me back, and a monk named Brother Bryan from the Carmelite publishing arm responded to my email. Together, they provided a portrait of the two lives of Father Peter T. Rohrbach, also known as espionage author, James P. Cody. 

First, the solution to the mystery of the seemingly married priest: Father Rohrbach left the priesthood in 1966 at the age of 40. He married Sheila in 1970, and she gave birth to Sarah a few years later. 


The pseudonym of James P. Cody has an interesting origin story. Rohrbach was actually born with the name James P. Cody, after his own father. His parents died, and young James was adopted by the Rohrbach family. “So James Cody legally changed his name to James Rohrbach,” Sarah explained. “He chose the name Peter Thomas while in the priesthood. He said it was common for priests to pick a new name.”

“He was a New York City boy to the core. He used to play stickball in the streets,” Brother Bryan recalled.  He joined the Carmelites in 1948 and was ordained as a priest in 1952. By the 1960s, Father Rohrbach found himself the “superior” of a tight group of 20 Carmelite priests and monks living, praying, and working in a Washington, D.C. rectory. 

From my dialogue with Brother Bryan, I got the feeling that Father Rohrbach was fun-loving – and maybe a tad rebellious – compared to the solemn and silent Carmelite stereotype. “One very difficult day, he knocked on my door very late at night and said ‘Let’s go to a movie.’ We did. It was “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, and the only seats at that popular show were in the first row, up front. So there we were, almost on our backs looking up at Audrey Hepburn!”

I broached the subject of Father Rohrbach’s separation from the priesthood gingerly with Brother Bryan, braced for a salacious story of a man, a woman, and forbidden love - something like The Thorn Birds. “It is not for me to conjecture,” he said. “All of us live by our decisions.” Apparently, it was a cordial separation, and Rohrbach kept in touch with his Carmelite friends long after he left the priesthood. His history of the Order, “Journey to Carith”, was released by the Carmelite’s publishing imprint in 1966, the same year he departed the rectory. “He left one caveat: do not change the text,” Brother Bryan said. “He seemed to love his writing.”

When I asked Sarah about her father leaving the priesthood behind, she simply said, “He told me he just wanted the intellectual freedom to write.” I found this answer interesting since the Carmelites clearly had no problem with Father Rohrbach cranking out intellectually-rigorous books about prayer and the lives of saints. Maybe he wanted to write about other things (i.e. sexy spy novels) but knew that this wouldn’t fly with the Carmelite Mothership.

Brother Bryan seemed to share my theory. “We all have our fatal attractions,” he said. “I think his was that he wanted to be a famous novelist.”

Whatever his reasons, Rohrbach quickly fell into a normal secular life. He married in 1970 and took a job teaching American History. He continued to edit a prestigious Catholic quarterly publication for years following his departure from the contemplative life. Sarah’s mother remembers Rohrbach writing The D.C. Man books when Sarah was a baby in 1974.

The D.C. Man books were published without much fanfare, and it doesn’t appear that he ever returned to genre fiction. I told Sarah that I was hoping to uncover a story about a Roman Catholic priest secretly writing sexy spy novels under a fake name, but the real story was far more complex. “I still think that may be the truth, though,” Sarah said. “He was likely at least working on them.”

Rohrbach rarely spoke to his family about 'The D.C. Man'. The colorful paperbacks must have stuck out like sore thumbs as they sat on his home office bookshelf among the 16 books he wrote before his 2004 death. He went on to write non-fiction books about stagecoach travel and the Wright brothers, but he never returned to Men’s Adventure fiction. 

Early in “The D.C. Man #1: Top Secret Kill”, our hero Brian Peterson recounts his own personal trauma that informed his life thereafter. His wife and young daughter were killed in an auto accident by two teenagers hot-rodding down the street. The accident broke Brian’s spirit and 'The D.C. Man' series can be seen as a larger story of Brian trying to recover from this trauma and regain his own humanity from the grip of intense grief. As an author, Rohrbach could have chosen any life-changing trauma he wanted for Brian, but instead he chose the loss of a wife and daughter. 

Bear in mind that this novel was written and released the same year as the birth of his own daughter to a wife that he was only able to marry because he was brave enough to deny one set of vows to take on another. It’s almost as if Rohrbach included this backstory as a message to a future Sheila and Sarah to tell them how much he loved them. That they were everything to him. That he would be lost without them.

Sarah told me that she’s only read one of 'The D.C. Man' books, and I encouraged her to read the other novels in the series. I told her that her father really was a fine writer.

“Yes,” she said, “He was lovely with words.”