Frank L. Packard (1877-1942) was a Canadian who wrote crime and adventure fiction but gained his greatest fame with his Jimmie Dale stories. Jimmie Dale, alias the Grey Seal, is a very very early example of both the masked avenger type of hero and the hero with a secret identity.
Raffles, created by E. W. Hornung, had proved that the public loved the idea of a gentleman-thief but there was still a slight problem - even a gentleman-thief is, in the final analysis, a criminal and therefore not quite a true hero. It would be obviously very advantageous to have a protagonist who combined the gentleman-thief and the hero in a single character. This could be done easily enough by making him a Robin Hood figure - a man who commits daring robberies but also helps people and fights injustice.
American Louis Joseph Vance, with the Lone Wolf, came up with this solution in 1914. Packard followed him into print with his own hero Jimmie Dale in his 1917 The Adventures of Jimmie Dale. It should be pointed out in passing that Raffles had not been, technically, a gentleman. He merely passed as one. Jimmie Dale is however the genuine article. So why would a gentleman become a celebrated thief? The answer is that Jimmie’s fortune came from his father’s safe-manufacturing business. Jimmie had decided to amuse himself by finding out just how difficult it would be to crack safes. Cracking safes turned out to be great fun but as a result of a mischance Jimmie finds himself having no choice in the matter. He must continue his career as a cracksman whether he wants to or not. He is no ordinary safe-cracker however - he steals only in order to right wrongs.
The first half of the book takes the form of a collection of linked short stories, or an episodic novel, the link being provided by Jimmie’s attempts to establish the identity of the person who pulls the strings to which he must dance. The second half is more of a connected narrative as Jimmie faces his biggest challenge playing for the highest stakes possible. This second half also moves the book more overtly into thriller territory complete with a gigantic diabolical criminal conspiracy worthy of Professor Moriarty.
Jimmie is a hero with three identities - Jimmie Dale the handsome rich young man-about-town, the Grey Seal the glamorous philanthropic burglar, and the seedy low-life denizen of the underworld Larry the Bat.
A hero of this type has to have a trademark. In this case he leaves behind a grey diamond-shaped paper seal at the scene of each crime, hence his nickname.
The adventures chronicled in the book all obviously follow a fairly similar formula - Jimmie has to carry out a hazardous burglary which will in some way serve the ends of justice, he will have a narrow escape from capture and will often face even greater perils from disgruntled criminals. Packard adds just enough variety to keep things interesting. On occasion Jimmie even has to deal with crooked policemen.
The stories are set in London but perhaps not surprisingly (given that Packard was Canadian) some of the underworld haunts described sound like they would not have been out of place in the wilds of the Yukon! Mind you, the London underworld in Victorian and Edwardian times could in reality be a pretty tough place. These adventures have a slightly tougher and definitely seedier edge to them than the original Raffles stories. Jimmie Dale’s adventures take him into some rather sordid places including opium dens and some very squalid hovels.
One thing that perhaps gives away the fact that the author was a Canadian is that his burglars and petty thieves show a remarkable willingness to both carry and use guns. It has always been my impression that the professional criminal classes in England at that time were extremely reluctant even to carry a gun - carrying a gun meant the risk that a burglary would end in murder and murder meant the hangman’s rope. This is an element that seems more typical of later American hardboiled crime fiction rather than Edwardian British detective fiction.
There’s also a love story here but a rather unconventional one since Jimmie has never set eyes on the object of his devotion. In true medieval knight-errant style he is in love with an ideal of womanhood but whether this love can ever be transformed into a solid reality depends on Jimmie’s courage and daring, and of course on his decency and honour.
The Adventures of Jimmie Dale intriguingly combines a very Edwardian tone with hints of the grittiness of the not-yet-emerged American hardboiled school. The hero is conventionally brave and noble and the villains certainly owe a good deal to the melodrama tradition. It’s fine adventure fiction and provides plenty of breathless excitement as the hero struggles to stay one step ahead of both the police and the villains. Very enjoyable and warmly recommended.