Packard, Frank L. The Adventures of Jimmie Dale. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1917.
“Dear Philanthropic crook.”
So begins each letter of instruction that the Gray Seal receives from the mysterious Tocsin. The Gray Seal is the most audacious and successful burglar in the city. His crimes are spectacularly successful, the envy of every other crook in the underworld and the bane of the police force, who haven’t the faintest clue of who he is or how to catch him. And catch him they most assuredly want to, cop or crooks, dead or alive and no one is particular about the alive part.
The police are made to look like fools by the Gray Seal’s antics. So they would very much like to put an end to his career as a safe cracker, possibly even put an end to the Gray Seal himself. The underworld very much wants to put an end to the Gray seal for when ever he strikes one of their own seems to end up in jail or one of their schemes seems to fail.
Who is the Gray Seal? The world would be shocked to learn that he is none other than Jimmie Dale, wealthy bachelor and man about town. High society would be scandalized to learn that one of its own consorted with low society. Dale, bored with his day-to-day existence began using his intimate knowledge of safes (his father was a safe manufacturer) to commit “crimes.” He would break into a well guarded safe and leave behind a gray diamond seal. Nothing would be stolen but the nose of the law would be well and truly tweaked.
One day things don’t go quite as planned and Dale barely escapes. In the process he ends up taking some jewels. It is a disaster for him. Even worse, someone else knows that he has stolen the jewels and knows that Dale and the Gray Seal are one and the same person. A long prison sentence and the besmirching of the Dale name await him unless he does this mysterious person’s bidding. Quickly the mysterious Toscin has Dale committing “crimes” that actually foil greater underworld plots. Toscin’s notes provide intimate details of the plots to be foiled, usually with very little time to spare. Dale, as the Gray Seal must rush off to complete another task, each more hair raising and tense than the last. Dale no longer wants to play his game of burglar but now cannot quit.
The Adventures of Jimmie Dale was first serialized in People’s magazine in 16 parts from May 1914 through to August 1915. It was published as a book by George H. Doran Co., in 1917. The novel is divided into two parts. The first part deals with Dale’s adventures as he tries to accomplish the Toscin’s objectives and discover who the Toscin is. Dale also manages to fall in love with the mysterious Toscin. In the second part of the novel, Dale and the Toscin, aka Marie LaSalle, finally get together, and, surprise, LaSalle also loves Dale. But, the underworld wants LaSalle, to get at the fortune left to her. The underworld is also closing in on the Gray Seal so the pair must seek a way to get completely free of the undesired attention.
The Jimmie Dale character proved to be a very popular and successful one for Frank Packard. In the end five Jimmie Dale novels were written. Packard was reportedly working on a sixth when he died. If so, it did not survive. There is no sign of it in Packard’s papers. The stories were immensely popular in the US, Canada and the U.K. Packard’s book’s, in general, were very popular and were translated into at least 8 other languages. Jimmie Dale books also appear in Czechoslovakian, Italian and Spanish. Walt Disney himself bought the rights to the character. Unfortunately he died before making a movie and interest was subsequently lost in the project. The five novels, while written over a period of 20 years, form a single, continuous story sequence. Events in later novels follow closely on the heels of events in previous novels.
The Jimmie Dale character stands out from most other pulp characters. Dale has an actual internal, emotional life. He is not always sure of his way and agonises over the consequences of his actions. At first brush, Dale seems to be operating as a typical vigilante justice figure, one who pursues justice through self sacrifice. Dale appears to work for the benefit of others, much like those who would come after him (Zorro, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Batman, etc.) But, that is not the case. Dale was essentially a spoiled rich boy who got caught dabbling in crime and mischief making. The Toscin forces Dale to atone for his childish hijinks and makes him into an actual agent of justice and good. She gives his actions, and as a consequence, his life, purpose and meaning. Dale would happily abandon the Grey Seal persona, along with his underworld alias, Larry the Bat, but he can’t. Dale is a flawed, or reluctant hero.
The Toscin character is another one to watch. She is a strong female character who is smarter than Dale. She is self assured and psychologically stronger than Dale. She lives in the underworld contentiously. Dale only dips in, then retreats to his exclusive St. James club to refresh himself. At no point in the story does the Toscin ever need to be rescued by Dale, or anyone else.
The Jimmie Dale stories are notable for another reason. They introduced a number of hero characteristics (or tropes) that influenced pulp fiction and hero fiction through to this day. Some of these are:
a) The hero is wealthy. This frees the hero from having to do any work. Plus, it permits him to purchase any equipment or technology he may need.
b) The hero is a bachelor. This frees the hero from having to account to anyone for his movements or activities.
c) There is a secret base from which the hero works from.
d) The hero maintains a secret identity or disguise.
e) The hero uses the latest technology. In Dale’s case, this included cars for personal transport and guns for defence.
Many of the hero’s that followed Dale incorporated these and other tropes. Some examples are:
Bulldog Drummond 1920
The Saint 1928
The Shadow 1930
Doc Savage 1933
The Adventures of Jimmie Dale never made it to paperback, but for those who like to read actual books, there are plenty of inexpensive A.L. Burt reprint editions to be had. The text is also readily available on-line. There is an audio version available at LibriVox.
Sampson, Robert. “Dale”, Yesterday’s Faces: Glory Figures. Vol. 1. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983. 132-162. Print.
Vineyard, David L. “Frank L. Packard’s Jimmie Dale – An Overview”, Mystery File. 2009. Web. 25 March 2013.