Friday, November 25, 2011

FFB: Frank L. Packard - The Underworld & Exotic Crime

Today is Friday's Forgotten Books Salute to Canada.  Our guest host for this Black Friday is the ever resourceful Todd Mason. The links for today's other posts are at his blog Sweet Feedom.  Check them out for other (I'm sure) more recent and contemporary writers from Canada.  I had to go with one of the most neglected Canadian writers of crime fiction from the past century.

Although Frank L Packard was born and raised in Montreal, attended McGill University, and worked for years for the Canadian Pacific Railway as a civil engineer he tended to write about the dirty underworld of New York crime or exotic adventure tales set in the South Pacific and Asia like those found in Shanghai Jim (1928). Rarely do you find anything about his books on the internet and so I dove right into his books of which I had amassed quite a few.

Packard's first novels dealt with the redemption of the criminal world.  The Miracle Man (1914) tells of the Patriarch, a healer who has a run in with some con men and the surprise healing of a cripple boy that transforms the lives of the crooks trying to fleece the town. The book was adapted into a stage play and later was a high grossing silent film with Lon Chaney in the role of a contortionist who stuns the town by crawling up the aisle in extreme pain and then after receiving the Patriarch's healing touch unfolds his twisted limbs and walks away apparently cured. Similarly, in The Sin That Was His (1917) a crook falsely accused of a murder disguises himself as a priest in order to escape the police, but in living out his second disguised life undergoes a spiritual and moral change.

Probably his best known character is Jimmie Dale, aka "the Gray Seal," one of many in a long line of gentleman thief characters. Jimmie Dale also shows signs of the hero pulp characters with his secret hideaway, masked costume, calling cards stamped with the figure of a seal. I saw a lot of similarities to Herman Landon's Gray Phantom who is also a devil-may-care playboy who enjoys masquerading as a crime fighter and both use multiple identities. The Gray Phantom stories appeared serially in the pulps as did the Jimmie Dale stories but Packard's character came long before making his debut in 1914 while Landon's Gray Phantom appeared in 1920. While Packard may have borrowed from Raffles, Arsene Lupin, and other similar characters of the late Edwardian period in creating his own version of the gentleman thief who fights crime there can be no doubt that in Jimmie Dale we see the origin of the hero pulp characters culminating in The Shadow, The Spider, and even Batman. For an excellent overview of Jimmie Dale see this article by David Vineyard at Mystery*File.

One of the most interesting of the Gray Seal books is Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder. Herbert Carruthers, the newspaper editor who knows nothing of Dale's secret identity, delivers to Jimmie Dale the news that the Gray Seal is dead. 

A good example of Packard's exotic adventure novel is The Locked Book which begins aboard a merchant vessel sailing through the Malay Archipelago. After surviving an attack by savage pirates led by a white man wearing a crimson sash, Kenneth Wayne vows revenge on those who killed his father, Old Man Wayne, the skipper of the Waratan. Kenneth makes his way to a hotel run by the mysterious M. Fouché and passes himself off as a mining prospector. He succeeds in getting a local guide, a boat and heads off in search of the pirates pretending all the while to be a man looking for gold. Instead he comes across a shrine where an ancient book is being guarded as if it were a god. It's even given a name that sounds like a deity: Itu Konchi-Kan Kitab, which apparently merely means "the book that is locked." The book bound in an ornate stamped dragon that is swallowing its tongue is said to hold the key to a buried treasure of the Rajah Kana-ee-aa. But a native frightened by Kenneth's desecration of the shrine takes the book out of his hands before he can open it and flees in the jungle. Kenneth's vengeance takes a back seat to his interest in the book and the story becomes a mix of chase and intrigue as he attempts to recover the book and discover if it holds the secret to the treasure.

Part of the fun of reading this adventure tale is that the book itself is a replica of the locked book in the story. Shown above is the Copp, Clark Company 1st Canadian edition with the ornate gilt embossed dragon grasping his tail in his mouth. When the book is closed it gives the impression that it too is locked like the book guarded by the natives.

Whether he is writing about gangsters and their molls, crooked antiquarians seeking rare books with hidden secrets, sailors and merchant seamen battling marauding pirates in the South Seas, or Jimmie Dale and crew in the New York underworld, Frank L. Packard was instrumental in the development of crime fiction that shied away from amateur sleuths and focused on the darker and dirtier world that would explode into the violent writing of hard-boiled writers like Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett.


  1. I'm a great admirer of Packard's work, particularly The Miracle Man. Sad to think that only a couple of scenes survive from the original Lon Chaney film. Well worth a look.

    If interested, I've posted a few stills from the photoplay edition here.

    Wonderful to see Packard being recognized.

  2. I must've missed those posts, Brian. Or maybe I had not yet discovered your blog back in March. Thanks. I left comments on both.

    I wish I could've done more on Packard, but I was getting very tired last night after all the Thanksgiving festivities. I had only read The Locked Book within the past few days so that's the only that was fresh in my mind. At one time I had about 15 of Packard's books but discovered in going through my shelves that I had sold many of them. I kept only a few of his adventure tales and all the Jimmie Dale books. I couldn't remember much about the other Packard books I have read over the years. I had to resort to internet research (gasp!) to fill in the holes of my memory. Then when I saw David Vineyard’s article on Jimme Dale I thought why am I even bothering? It’s so perfect I just had to link to it.

    Today is supposed to be a salute to Canadian writers or books set in Canada. I hope I'm not the only one who remembered. You might want to check out the other offerings at Todd Mason's blog. He's the substitute host while Patti Abbot is away for the Thanksgiving holiday. The links are not up yet, but they should be later today.

  3. These sound terrific, especially the exotic adventure tales, a(sub?) genre I particularly enjoy, particularly stories by George Worts and H. Bedford-Jones. Is any of Packer available now, and was any of it ever printed in pb?

  4. Rick-

    I personally prefer his South Sea crime/adventure novels to anything else he wrote. There are seven Packard books available via Project Gutenberg (I forget if you like me shun eBooks and digital formats), but none of them are the sea adventure books. No paperback editions at all that I know of. As for reissues I could find none by any reputable publisher, only those execrable POD things. Ugh. I'd avoid those.

    I acquired all my Packard books via eBay or used bookstores and I don't recall paying more than $15 for any of them, and I know that most of them I got for $8 or less. I just did a random search of the better books of the type you mentioned (THE LOCKED BOOK, DRAGON'S JAW, TIGER CLAWS, THE PURPLE BALL, SHANGHAI JIM, TWO STOLEN IDOLS and THE DEVIL'S MANTLE) and there were multiple copies of each of those six titles for sale. Most of them for under $15, though I suspect the cheaper ones will be worn and beat up reading copies. I will dig around in my boxes of books for sale and if I find a Packard sea adventure I'll just send it to you. How's that?

  5. I found several copies on ABE, haven't looked at the other sites incl. the one you gave me. A copy from you would be great! If you find one, check back to be sure I didn't pick one up.

  6. Terrific covers! Absolutely wonderful. If you saw those out on the shelf for sale, back in the day, how could you resist?

  7. Haven't read any Packard, but I must say John, I simply LOVE these covers. Especially the Blue Envelope one. Just gorgeous!

    Though I'm not familiar with Packard, I still enjoyed reading your post.

  8. A bit of a late response here, John, but I thought I thought I might comment on the availability of Packard titles. POD pollution aside, I know of no Packard paperbacks... and this has had me thinking that his literary estate might have been a little lazy. After all, Canadian pulp contemporaries H. Bedford-Jones and Bertrand W. Sinclair were published in paperback in the 'fifties. The good news, of course, is that as a once-popular, but forgotten writer, his books tend to be plentiful and inexpensive.

    As a Montrealer, I find it interesting that one hardly ever sees a Packard title in his hometown. The last I picked up, a first Canadian edition of The Four Stragglers (1923), was in the 'FREE' box of a downtown bookseller.

  9. Project Gutenberg has downloads of seven of the Packard books including The Adventures of Jimmie Dale and the White Moll.

  10. I already mentioned that in my comment above. Thanks for the link, though.