02 December 2015

Whatever Happened to Jimmie Dale?

The Adventures of Jimmie Dale
Frank L. Packard
Toronto: Copp Clark, 1917

This is my fourth Packard. Put in context, that's like tackling John Buchan's Witch Wood, Castle Gay and Sick Heart River before getting to The Thirty-Nine Steps. The Adventures of Jimmie Dale is the real entry point to Packard; it's his best-known book, his best-selling work and it introduces his most popular character. As with Buchan and Richard Hannay, Packard returned to his hero repeatedly throughout his career.

Jimmie Dale owes everything to his late father, who made millions manufacturing the finest safes money could buy. You might say that the fortune came through protecting those of others. Jimmie himself dabbled in sketching and writing before turning to breaking and entering. Donning a black silk mask, he'd sneak into the expansive homes of New York's well-to-do, crack open their safes, and affix a diamond-shaped grey seal in place of a carte de visite. Nothing would be taken – Jimmie has never wanted for anything – the thrill was payment enough.

One night, all went horribly wrong. Jimmie's secret identity as the "Gray Seal" was discovered by a mysterious, unseen woman who threatened to expose him unless he turned his talents toward combatting crime. The millionaire playboy did just that – resulting in even greater thrills.

There are comparisons to be made. Jimmie Dale follows Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel by some ten years, though I would argue that he's had a far greater influence. For one, the Gray Seal's adventures take place in a contemporary setting, not some fanciful, idealized past. There's a gritty reality in the depictions of New York's impoverished and its criminal class, aided I think by the access Packard was granted to NYPD stakeouts and raids. Then there is the Sanctuary, a secret lair in which Jimmie transforms into Larry the Bat, to all appearances a down-and-out cocaine addict who moves through the city's underworld. As both Larry and the Gray Seal, Jimmie wears a wide leather belt holding the tools of his crime fighting trade.

Walter Gibson acknowledged his debt to Packard in creating the Shadow. That Batman co-creator Bob Kane never said a thing is unsurprising.

Walt Disney was a great Gray Seal fan, and would re-enact scenes from the adventures before his staff. Here's a photo of Uncle Walt with a copy of Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder (1930) on his desk. In 1952, Disney purchased the television rights to the adventures and tried to interest NBC in a series. Too dark, it seems. Wade Sampson's excellent article "Walt Disney aka the Gray Seal"  has more on the failed pitch.

I'm making a lot of the Disney connection because The Adventures of Jimmie Dale is even better suited for television today. The novel's structure owes much to the fact that it initially appeared in serialization. The first part, "The Man in the Case", details ten intricate and brilliantly executed adventures, each instigated by the mysterious woman. It's episodic, yet there is character development and an overarching narrative. The second part, "The Woman in the Case", consists of one long adventure in which the mystery of the mysterious woman is finally solved.

The mystery the reader is left with is how such an influential character can be so forgotten. Why has there been no revival? How is it that The Adventures of Jimmie Dale is out of print? Most of all, why did it take me so long to get around to reading it?

Gray? Grey?: I've used both here: one for the character and one for his calling card. A fellow Montrealer, I expect Packard was brought up to use "grey", but he was a pro who would've known to use "gray" when writing for the American market. Interestingly, the author anglicized the Gray Seal's adventures for British publication. Four years ago, a generous reader sent me these comparisons of the American and British versions:

Jimmie? Jimmy?: From the earliest days, publishers have struggled with the hero's name.

I've encountered two different editions published as The Adventures of Jimmy Dale, though the texts of each had Jimmie as "Jimmie".

Didn't buy either.

Big mistake.

Bloomers: Mark Abley published a very good piece on these unintentional double entendres a few months back in the Gazette, noting amongst other things that the meaning of "ejaculation" has changed  over time. The word and its variations appear eleven times in The Adventures of Jimmie Dale.

This is a very fine bloomer:
"Ah!" – it came in a fierce little ejaculation from Jimmie Dale.
But it is outdone by what is the best bloomer I've read all year:
A chorus of ejaculations rose from the reporters, while their pencils worked furiously.
Curiously, the word features just once in the second Grey Seal novel, The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1919):
"Oh, colonel!" There was mingled delight and hesitation in her ejaculation.
Motion Picture News, 30 June 1917
Trivia: In 1917, the novel was adapted and brought to the silent screen as Jimmy Dale, Alias "The Grey Seal", a sixteen-part serial. Forgotten actor and director E.K. Lincoln featured in the title role. All sixteen episodes are considered lost. Appropriate, don't you think?

Object: A 468-page hardcover, my jacket-less first Canadian edition was purchased for $20.00 this past summer. It's horribly beat-up, but the money went to charity.

Access: Copies can be found at Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, the Toronto Public Library and pretty much every one of our universities.

Long in the public domain, inept print on demand vultures like Nabu and "Kessinger Publishing [sic]" have really moved in on this one. As always, they are to be ignored. You can always read it for free online here at the Internet Archive.

Plenty of old copies are being offered online for as little as six American dollars. At US$150 the one to buy is a Very Good copy of the Copp Clark edition in Very Good jacket being offered by a bookseller in Milton, Ontario.

I know of two translations – Irish (Tuille de eachtraí Shéamuis Uí Dhuibhir) and Spanish (Aventuras de Jim Dale) – though I suspect there are more.


  1. There are a half dozen of Packard's books available as free downloads on Project Gutenberg, including "The Adventures of Jimmie Dale" and "The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale."


    1. Thanks, Shay. I note that one of those on offer is The Miracle Man, which is also recommended. Internet Archive has even more here, including The Wire Devils and The Four Stragglers. It's an embarrassment of free riches.

  2. I was mentally composing a whiny response about Packard's books being out of print, and was stopped short by Shay's delightful revelation. Thanks, Brian and Shay!

    1. Whine away, Mathew! I do it all the time… well, I complain, anyway. That said, I'd be at fault for not pointing out that just a couple of years ago Packard's The Wire Devils was reissued by the University of Minnesota. I wrote about it here and here at The Montreal Review of Books. The new edition features an excellent introduction by Robert MacDougall of the University of Western Ontario.

  3. His books are relatively easy to find. I drew the line at about a dozen. They take up so much shelf space. I notice you didn't actually talk about the quality of the writing. They are so obviously serialized. Reading them at more than a chapter a week can be trying, as the set up info repeats every chapter. I'm hoping the later ones (especially #5 which is supposed to be an actual novel) get smoother. Still, so much fun to see the elements of the Super Hero beginning to coalesce. I can't actually imagine that Jimmie Dale would ever be a successful sell today, but a new movie would be super.

    1. One thing I find strange, Beau, is that I've never found a Packard on a Montreal bookstore shelf. London's Attic Books, the source of many of my Packards, currently has three devoted to the man!

      You're right, I didn't mention the quality of the writing; the post was getting long. I'll add here that I find Packard prose more sophisticated than nearly all his contemporaries. The adventures covered in the first part, "The Man in the Case", are really just collected magazine serials, though there is significant change - skipping to the sixth after reading the first one gets the sense of missing out. The second part, "The Woman in the Case" reads like a novella. That said, if Packard wanted me to think of the whole as a novel, I'll happily do so.

      I agree that Jimmie Dale wouldn't be so successful today, though I do think sales would be enough to justify. A movie would be super. A television series would be even better. A graphic novel or comic book series would also be great.

      My thanks again for sending me those Gray Seal/Grey Seal comparisons all those years ago. They're fantastic!