02 April 2019

The Return of Jimmie Dale, Alias Gray Seal

Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal
Michael Howard
n.p.: The Author, 2017
375 pages

My final year as a trick-or-treater was spent walking though cold, dark streets of suburban Montreal as the Shadow. I wore my grandfather's raincoat, his fedora, and a red winter scarf that belonged to my mother. I carried a squirt gun that bore some resemblance to a Colt .45. The fake nose I'd torn off a pair of plastic Groucho Marx glasses was left behind; I couldn't figure out a way to make it stick to my face.

Even then, at age eleven, I knew it was unlikely that the adults handing out candy would recognize my costume. I tried make things easier by affixing the Shadow logo, traced from the cover of DC Comics' The Shadow #3, to the paper Steinberg's grocery bag used to collect my loot.

I was a 'seventies kid steeped in the culture of the Great Depression. My favourite television show was The Waltons. Decades-old episodes of The Shadow played each summer on As It Happens. The pharmacy in nearby Pointe Claire Village sold oversized reproductions of Detective Comics #27 and Batman #1.

What I didn't realize then, or in the the thirty or so years that followed, was that my favourite crime fighters – the Shadow and Batman – had been influenced by the Gray Seal, a character created by Frank L. Packard, a fellow Montrealer, who had lived not fifteen kilometres from my Beaconsfield home.

The Gray Seal was born in the pulps. First appearing in the April 1914 edition of People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine, his  earliest stories were collected in The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1917). Four more Gray Seal books followed, the last of which, Jimmie Dale and the Missing Hour (1935), was published seven years before his creator's death.

Packard's bibliography offers some explanation as to why the Gray Seal is a forgotten hero. The author produced hundreds of stories for magazines, yet those featuring the Gray Seal are very much in the minority; just five of Packard's thirty-seven books feature the character. Unlike the Shadow and Batman, the creator retained ownership. No one else, save early screen scenarist Mildred Considine, who in 1917 helped bring the Gray Seal to the screen, wrote anything to do with the character that reached the public.

Until now.

As its cover states, Michael Howard's Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal is "The first Gray Seal novel in more than eighty years!" I take care to include the exclamation mark in that quote because its publication is cause for celebration. Howard has done Packard proud.

Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal precedes Packard's adventures in that it imagines the character before his first appearance in People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine. While it is not an origin story, Howard provides more background than is found in Packard's Gray Seal books. Jimmie's father is still alive, the safe company that brought fortune is still in Dale family hands, and yet, Jimmie is already fighting crime as the Gray Seal. The first to experience his form of justice is Elias Hobart, a crook who preys on good people eager to donate money to the survivors of disaster. He's been doing it since the 1889 Johnstown Flood.

Mayor William Jay Gaynor
1849 - 1913
The reference to Johnstown marks one difference between the Howard and Packard Gray Seal adventures. Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal begins and ends with chapters set in mid-September 1920, but the twenty-nine in-between take place during a summer eight years earlier. Howard grounds both time and place with characters making occasional, casual references to events current and past. Figures of the day, my favourite being ill-fated Mayor William Jay Gaynor, make brief appearances.

Elias Hobart is dealt with in short order; the greater challenge in this novel comes from a group of men known as the Spider Gang. They use metal claws to scale the cavernous streets of Manhattan, abducting the New York's most beautiful women.

But for what purpose?

The women who fall victim to the Spider Gang come from all social classes, with the villains scrambling up the exterior walls of both tenements and mansions. No ransom is ever sought. I risk spoiling things a bit in revealing that their motivation has something to do with the occult. The supernatural is another element introduced by Howard. Though common in pulp writing of the Parkard's day, it doesn't feature in his Jimmie Dale adventures.

Or am I wrong?

I can't say for certain because I've read only three of Packard's five Gray Seal books. Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal has me wanting to read the others. I can think of no greater compliment.

Would that I could go out as the Gray Seal this Halloween.

Trivia: The Grey Seal of my boyhood:

Object and Access: An attractive print on demand trade-size paperback. The cover image is by Doug Kleuba. WorldCat suggests that the novel isn't held by a single Canadian library. It can be purchased through this link to Amazon. Heads up, Library and Archives Canada.

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  1. Great review, Brian. As always. I think you'll enjoy the last two Jimmie Dale novels Packard wrote. The plots are just okay and the dialogue clunky at times, but the evolving relationship between Jimmie and Marie is terrific. Over the course of the five book series those have gone from a rather impersonal master-subordinate basis (The Shadow and Harry Vincent if you will) to a bantering Nick and Nora of the Jazz Age - except that here Jimmie can acknowledge what the reader has known all along: the Tocsin is the real brains of the operation!

    1. Thank you, Michael. It's funny that you mention Nick and Nora. I began The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale expecting Jimmie and Marie to be married, living in a Manhattan penthouse, and solving crimes like the Charleses ("only without the drinking or the humour," I wrote in my review). I was disappointed that they weren't together, and was frustrated by the beginning of Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue. There's only so much heartbreak a man can take.

      You've provided further encouragement to start in on Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder.

      We're in the middle of another move, meaning I'll be hunting through boxes. I expect it'll be a long night.

  2. This is super cool. I've been playing with an idea to update the story to modern times, but have too many other projects to really try it out; fun to think about though, it almost writes itself.

    I've been slowly working my way through the third book. I wouldn't call the writing compelling, but the ideas and the glimpses of pure 20's pulp world are worth the read.

    1. Funny, I'd thought of something not altogether dissimilar: a Son of the Grey Seal novel taking place in pre-Drapeau sin city Montreal.

  3. A Twenty-first Century Gray Seal book? Jimmie Dale would be the bored son of wealthy computer security expert. The Tocsin discovers he hacked into a government database for his own amusement and blackmails him into tackling ruthless cyber-criminals... Yes, I think that COULD work. Frank Packard's legacy lives on!