THE DIME NOVEL DETECTIVES
Elements of crime detection began to appear in English fiction early in the eighteenth century. Henry Fielding, himself a magistrate, fictionalized Jonathan Wild’s schizoid career as a thief and “thief-taker.” Several publications of the late 18th century may be considered the ancestors of detective literature, principally the “Newgate Calendar.” This originated as a compilation of the chapbooks and broadsheets sold by hawkers and “running patterers” at fairs and public executions.
The original issue was published in 1773 and reported on crimes from 1700 to the date of publication. A typical full title reads:
The Newgate Calendar; comprising interesting memoirs of the most notorious characters who have been convicted of outrages on the laws of England since the commencement of the eighteenth century; with anecdotes and last exclamations of sufferers.
Early editions were offered in sixpenny parts or as five-volume sets, bound in leather and illustrated with copperplate engravings. In one form or another, the Newgate Calendar would be issued until the 1860s, ending as a penny-part issue. These volumes emphasized the juicier aspects of crime, but also featured the efforts of law enforcers. Some of the early “Gothick” novels from the same period were concerned with crime and punishment, but criminal detection would have to wait a few decades longer to emerge as a literary genre.
Eugene Francois Vidocq, a rogue turned detective, published his sensational Memoires in 1827, a blend of fact and fiction which inspired other French authors to enter the field of detective stories. Emile Gaboriau (1832-1873) created the fictional Monsieur Lecoq of the Surete and also Pere Tabaret in L’Affaire Lerouge of 1866. (William Sidney Porter, writing as O. Henry, would later parody the genre in a story of “Monsieur Tictoq.”) Other early French “Roman Policiers” were “Rocambole,” created by Ponson du Terrail, and “M. Jean,” by Fortune du Boisgobey. It is no coincidence that Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue used a French detective, C. Auguste Dupin, and his system of “ratiocination.” Vidocq’s original memoirs appeared in countless paperback reprints, well into the twentieth century.
English police and detective literature began to diverge from the Newgate Calendars with the appearance of Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner by “Richmond” in 1827. A Scot, Angus Reach (1821-1856), an associate of Vidocq, wrote Clement Lorimer: or the Book with the Iron Clasps in 1849. His encyclopedic knowledge of the underworld made the book a sensation. Another Scot, William Russell, published two series of Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer, under the pseudonym of “Waters.” Charles Dickens created several memorable detectives, notably Inspector Bucket in his 1853 Bleak House, while his friend Wilkie Collins created Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone (1868). And of course the Victorian era produced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal consulting detective of Baker Street, Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his Boswell, Dr. John Watson. Holmes would inspire penny weekly gumshoes Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee.
During the 1840s, crime and detection featured prominently in the new illustrated penny journals that flooded from London’s Fleet Street. In an effort to outdo each other, popular novelists created an array of unique crime fighters with superhuman powers amid a welter of gothic underworld settings. George William McArthur Reynolds, borrowing from Eugene Sue’s Les Mysteres de Paris, issued the lengthy serial, The Mysteries of London, which in turn inspired American writers like George Lippard and E.Z.C. Judson (“Ned Buntline”) to create dozens of “Mysteries and Miseries” serials about American cities. As befitted an agrarian nation, early American popular fiction from the 1820s through the 1850s had concentrated heavily on frontier, naval and Revolutionary War topics, but the urban environment began to intrude with the growth of manufacturing and finance. The American Civil War of 1861-1865 established the United States as an industrial giant with New York as its nerve center. Since most American popular fiction originated in New York, the big city became the locale for thousands of novels.
Between foreign immigration and flight from the countryside, American cities suffered the horrors of overcrowding, homelessness, poor sanitation and crime that had afflicted London earlier in the century. This toxic brew also provided a fertile field for crime and detective fiction. Considering the poor record of New York’s two rival police forces, the idea of an efficient detective who always solved his cases was true wishful thinking.
The nineteenth century detective story flourished most luxuriantly in the pages of American dime novels, beginning in the 1870s. Unlike the literary sleuths of hardcover volumes, dime novel detectives were a weird and wonderful bunch who specialized in bizarre physical peculiarities, uncanny disguises and a fair amount of brute force. The scientific and logical deductive processes expounded by Poe, Collins and Doyle rarely entered into these adventures, although later characters such as Nick Carter and Old King Brady used their brains as well as their fists.
Most dime novel detective stories were formulaic, beginning with a startling “hook” to grab the reader, usually a sound effect like “Bang! Bang! Bang! Three shots rang out,” or a terse line of dialogue: “It is a case of murder, Mr. Carter.” Generally, the background of the case is laid out by the client and then the hero goes to work, donning disguises, shadowing suspects, engaging in action-packed fights, hairsbreadth escapes, daring rescues and dire peril. Coincidences abound, hidden identities come to light, and the culprit faces the consequences of his or her crime. After a round of reunions, the detective declares the case closed. To promote sales, dozens of these novels promised that the story was “the most remarkable case on record” or some such fluff. Variations and permutations of the basic theme kept hundreds of fictional detectives busy throughout the following century. To compete with the new urban crime fighters, even Western or costumed period-piece heroes engaged in detective work, notably Deadwood Dick, “The Liberty Boys of ‘76” and “Young Wild West.” College athletes like the Merriwell brothers would turn their abilities to ferreting out a mystery on occasion. This trend would culminate in the perennially popular “Hardy Boys” and “Nancy Drew” mysteries.
Although the word “detective” appeared in a Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. serial in the 1850s, a serial novelization of Tom Taylor’s 1863 stage play “The Ticket of Leave Man” in The Flag of our Union for March 1865, produced the first story paper detective hero in an American paper: the gimlet-eyed British officer, Hawkshaw. His name soon became a slang term for a detective and was featured in Gus Mager’s comic strip Hawkshaw the Detective from 1913-1922 and 1931-1952.
Beadle and Adams, the creators of the “Dime Novel,” tentatively included some detective stories in their various series. One of the earliest was “The Two Detectives; or, The Fortunes of a Bowery Girl” in Beadle’s Half-Dime Library (1877). They reprinted Vidocq’s memoirs in their Frank Starr’s New York Library in the same year. Before long, Albert W. Aiken’s Joe Phenix series and dozens of other detective stories became a regular feature in Beadle’s offerings. Kate F. Hill penned several yarns about plucky female detectives for Beadle’s New York Dime Library. Beadle’s only black author, who called himself “Philip S. Warne,” but whose real name may have been Howard W. Macy, wrote several clever and well-plotted detective novels for the firm.
In 1872, Harlan Page Halsey, writing as “Tony Pastor,” introduced “Old Sleuth,” the first of a long line of detectives to star in his own series. Old Sleuth, whose adventures regularly appeared in George Munro’s New York Fireside Companion, became the focus of an acrimonious series of lawsuits between George Munro and his brother, rival publisher Norman L. Munro. The term “sleuth,” an archaic word for “bloodhound,” had not been used previously as a synonym for “detective,” at least not in popular fiction. Harlan Halsey obtained an injunction against Norman for using “sleuth” in several titles. George Munro then sued Ogilvie and Co. for a similar unauthorized use of “sleuth.” (His most serious opponent, however, was Norman’s ex-partner, Frank Tousey, who used the word throughout his many lines of story papers and nickel weeklies. In 1891, after yet more litigation, George threw in the towel and Tousey was allowed to issue tales of “Young Sleuth” without legal harassment.)
Broadway performer and impresario Antonio Pastor found his putative authorship to be excellent publicity. After he introduced his hit song “Down in a Coal Mine,” a mystery story of the same name appeared in the paper. His rivals, Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart, lent their names to serials (including some detective stories) in Norman Munro’s Boys of New York.
The success of his brother’s Old Sleuth series led Norman L. Munro to commence the first line of dime novels exclusively devoted to detective fiction, the long running Old Cap. Collier Library, which tallied 822 numbers between 1883 and 1899. It was succeeded by The Up-to-Date Boys’ Library, which ran for 40 issues from 1899 to 1900. Old Cap. Collier is one of the more intricate series in terms of publishing and format. It began as a ten-cent pamphlet with fairly austere buff or brick red wrappers, although pink and green were used occasionally for the first 330 issues. Some issues have internal illustrations. After issue 331, the size was increased from 7 x 9 inches to 8 x 12 inches, and the front cover bore an elaborate black and white woodcut. From No. 395 to the end, the size was again reduced to 7 x 9 inches, and many of the early numbers were reprinted with a new individual woodcut cover illustration. The identity of the authors of this series is problematic, as all stories use pseudonyms. Edward Stratemeyer, creator of The Rover Boys, Tom Swift, The Bobbsey Twins and about 800 other series books, wrote several Old Cap. Collier stories as “Ed Strayer.” According to Publishers’ Weekly, November 17, 1906, and the New York Times, November 12, 1906, Jamison Torr Altemus (1860-1906), a New York journalist “was best known as the author of countless detective stories attributed to ‘Old Cap Collier.’ He frequently said many of them were founded on facts.” This claim has considerable truth, since a number of the stories used actual crimes, such as the abduction of department store magnate A. T. Stewart’s corpse for ransom, or the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, as a point of departure for the wild fictional escapades of their heroes. (An exception to the anonymous scribes who worked on the series was Emile Gaboriau, whose L’Affaire Lerouge was pirated as Old Tabaret, the Self-Made Detective; or, “Piping” the Lerouge Case. His Monsieur Lecoq novels received similar treatment. Gaboriau had been dead for a decade, so his works were deemed to be in the public domain.)
Many of the detectives who appeared in the pages of Old Cap. Collier Library were notable for their physical, ethnic and behavioral oddities. Thus we have Old Opium, the Mongolian Detective, Old Broadbrim the Quaker Detective, Run to Earth, the Electric Detective, Old Lynx the Mormon Detective, Garry the Jersey Hawkshaw, Sam Strong the Cowboy Detective and several liberated female investigators. There were hunchbacked detectives, mystics, blind detectives and the occasional African-American detective. Many of the stories are sadistic in the extreme, and require a glossary of “flash” slang. Several subseries existed, featuring such luminaries as Rody Rogan, Dash Dare, Gideon Gault, Dave Dotson and Larry Murtagh. Late issues included comic stories about “Bones” and his son, and some non-detective fiction. Munro was also the producer of a quack nostrum called “Neuralgine” and advertised the product extensively in his publications.
Five weeks after the first Old Cap. Collier tale hit the newsstands Frank Tousey’s New York Detective Library debuted. This omnibus series, which became the principal vehicle for stories about Frank and Jesse James, lasted until 1898 for 801 issues, plus a couple of extra numbers. The enduring characters of Old King Brady and Young Sleuth featured prominently, until they received their own series. Old King Brady acquired a young partner, Harry, known as “Young King Brady,” in 1899 in the colored cover Secret Service, which lasted until 1925 for 1,374 issues. The dapper pair in their matching Prince Albert coats had thrilling adventures around the globe. Many Brady stories involved Chinese smugglers of illegal immigrants and opium in New York and San Francisco. Francis Worcester Doughty (1850-1917), the creator of Old King Brady, produced well-written and -plotted stories, containing accurate locales and fascinating bits of information.
After over a decade of running Old Sleuth serials in his story paper, George Munro gave the character his own series, the Old Sleuth Library, published at irregular intervals between 1885 and 1905 in 101 issues. Like the Old Cap. Collier Library, this was a variety series which included Old Sleuth among other detectives. Some of the characters were Mephisto, the Razzle-Dazzle Detective, Young Thrashall; or, Waxey the Phenomenal Detective, Mura, the Western Lady Detective, Lady Kate, the Dashing Female Detective, Old Electricity, the Lightning Detective, and so on. In 1908 a reprint house, the Arthur Westbrook Company, revived the series as a colored cover weekly. The new series incorporated stories from Munro, Beadle and Adams and others. It ran until 1912 for 203 issues.
Continue to Part II of The Dime Novel Detectives HERE.