The Wire Devils by Frank L. Packard

The Wire Devils

The Wire Devils

Pachard, Frank L. The Wire Devils. Toronto: The Copp, Clark Co., 1918, pp. 318.

Up and down the line around Selkirk, a gang of robbers has been making a very successful living.  Moving with the trains and using the railroads own telegraph lines to pass messages and co-ordinate their attacks, the Wire Devil gang succeeds in one exploit after another, despite the best efforts of the railway detectives and the secret service.

Into this comes Harry Maul, aka The Hawk.  Newly released after a five year stretch in Sing-sing, the Hawk is looking to get in on the action.  News reports refer to the Hawk as an expert safe cracker, forger and a clever gentleman thief. (It was the era of the gentleman thief.  Raffles appeared in 1899, the Scarlet Pimpernel by 1905, the Four Just Men were up and about also in 1905, Jimmie Dale began his career the year before in 1917.  It would not be until 1920 that Bulldog Drummond would appear, followed by Blackshirt in 1925 and the Saint 1928. The thieves got nastier after that and the vigilante took over writing the wrongs that the law couldn’t.) The Hawk has no wish to actually join the Wire Devil gang.  Instead, he lets them plan the heist and then swoops in, snatching the boodle just before them.

It doesn’t take long before the whole Wire Devil gang is looking to kill him.  On top of that, the railway detectives, and the public, believe that he is the mastermind behind the Wire Devil’s deprecations, this despite the fact that Hawk was still in Sing-sing when the Wire Devils gang started up.  The gang is also very anxious to make his acquaintance.  MacVightie, head of the railway detective force, is hot on his heels.  Fortunately, no one knows what the Hawk looks like, or that the Hawk and Harry Maul are one and the same person.  Never the less, MacVightie is very suspicious of Harry Maul.

Frank Packard’s first published book was a collection of railway stories:  On The Iron at Big Cloud was published in 1911.  It gathered 15 railway stories previously published in various pulp magazines.  The Wire Devils was his second railroad book and the only full fledged railway novel that he wrote.  This was followed by two more collections of railway short stories: The Night Operator (1919) and Running Special (1925).  Packard worked for the CPR during the summers while he was at university[1].  This experience served him well and he is considered to be one of the foremost railway story writers of his time.

The Wire Devils also falls into another very small sub-genre, that of the wire thriller.  Mr. Busty, over at The Dusty Bookcase has previously written about The Wire Devils and wire thrillers here.

In our highly connected world of instant communications it is almost impossible to comprehend another less connected world.  In 1918 the options for long distance communications were very limited.  Letter writing was very important, but a relatively slow way of passing on information.  Telephones existed but were not wide spread, operators could listen in on a conversation and a long distance call was very expensive.  Even by the 1960’s long distance calls were considered to be expensive and a luxury.

In 1918 telegraph was still king.  A message could be sent pretty much anywhere in the country and be delivered speedily right to your door.  The telephone was challenging and would eventually replace the telegraph, but even into the 1970s a telegram could still be sent.  It is now considered to be an obsolete technology.  At the time, it was critical for rapid long distance communications.

In The Wire Devils, the telegraph plays a key role.  There were miles and miles of telegraph wire from which the gang could tap into to transmit or receive messages.  Attempts by the railway to track them were met with threats by the gang to shut down the whole telegraph line.  This would have a very significant negative impact on train operations, so the rail authorities were severely handicapped.  The gang was able to use the telegraph with impunity to pass its own coded messages and to listen in on any other telegraph traffic that might be happening.  The coded message permitted the gang to pass information to its members, who could be dispersed geographically.  It also permitted different parts of the gang to co-ordinate their efforts towards the latest heist.  Unfortunately for them the Hawk knows their communication methods and the key to their code. This is what permits him to stay one jump ahead of them.

A plot device that Packard uses in may of his novels is that of the over heard conversation.  Hero’s in Packard stories are always able to eavesdrop on someone just when vital information is being revealed.  It is a major weakness in The Wire Devils.  Hawk is always hanging around telegraph offices to overhear coded messages.  He frequently was found outside of the window of the room in which MacVightie was want to discuss his plans and strategies to capture said Hawk and the Wire Devil gang.  It is sometimes a wonder that he had any time go actually go off and do something.

The Popular Magazine, 20 March 1917

The Popular Magazine, 20 March 1917

The Wire Devils was serialized in six parts in The Popular Magazine starting 20 March 1917.  George H. Dorian Co. published the book in 1918 with Copp, Clark handling the Canadian market and Hodder & Stoughton covering the U.K.  A.L. Burt Co. came along later with the reprint edition.

There was a Spanish edition, Los diablos Del Telegrafo published in 1940.

The Wire Devils remains the only Frank Packard in print.  It was recently re-released by The University Of Minnesota Press.  It is not entirely clear to me why a university press would be publishing Packard.  But, a look through their catalogue shows that they have quite a varied collection of titles, including quite a number of fiction titles.  These include a number of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, other rail story collections, and folktales from various countries.  Packard appears in the Literature section.

For those that don’t care for paper, an online copy of The Wire Devils is available from the Internet archive.

[1] Some sources state that Packard was employed as a civil engineer with the Canadian Pacific Railway for much of his adult life. Contemporary newspaper accounts and an unpublished biography of Frank Packard by his son indicate that he only worked for CP during the summers while he was at university. Packard graduated from McGill in 1897 with a BSc in Engineering. He then took advanced electrical engineering at the Institut Montefiore of Liege University, Belgium in 1997-98. In 1898 he began work in the U.S. as a civil engineer. He was working in Georgia converting the city’s power lines from overhead to an underground system. By 1902 he was working as the general manager of the Packard Dressing Co. in Boston. He married, for the second time, in 1910. Frank and his wife, Pearl, moved back to Canada that same year. He purchased a house in Lachine and remained in Lachine for the rest of his life. By 1910 Packard had published 38 short stories. His first book would be published the next year and by 1914 his name and reputation would be made with the publication of The Miracle Man.

Hodder & Stoughton

Hodder & Stoughton

Copp, Clark Co.

Copp, Clark Co.

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1 Response to The Wire Devils by Frank L. Packard

  1. An interesting article here, as are all pieces you’ve done on Frank Packard. I have a Facebook page devoted to Packard and the Gray Seal and have actually written a Jimmie Dale pastiche novel. So your mention of “an unpublished biography of Frank Packard by his son” greatly intrigues me. Is there any way an interested fan like myself would be able to read it?


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