An Overview by David L. Vineyard         


   Few characters as obscure as Canadian novelist Frank L. Packard’s gentleman cracksman, Jimmie Dale the Gray Seal, have had the impact and long term import of this one. Almost unknown today, Packard and his creation not only exerted a tremendous influence on the pulps he came from, but established many of the tropes of the modern superhero in comic books.

   From his secret lair, the Sanctuary, his multiple identities, and his calling card, a gray diamond paper seal, Jimmie Dale set the pattern for the mystery men and super heroes who will follow.

   Jimmie first appeared in the May 1914 issue of People’s Magazine. He is the son of a wealthy safe manufacturer and himself an expert at all sorts of locks and safes. He is also noted for his sense of fun and adventure — which explains in part why he takes on the nom de guerre of the Gray Seal and breaks into the most difficult of safes, stealing nothing and leaving behind a gray diamond paper seal, the mark of the Gray Seal.


   Normally he would probably have grown out of this stage, but a mysterious woman will change all that. It begins with a series of letters claiming to know all about the Gray Seal and threatening him with jail.

   Soon enough the letters change and the mysterious angel begins to direct the actions of the Gray Seal to correct miscarriages of justice.

   Of such things are great careers born.

   Jimmie sells his father’s company and sets himself up as an idle playboy with the aid of the faithful butler Jason and his tough chauffeur Benson.

   He creates the personae of Larry the Bat, a small time crook and informer, and Smarlinghue the drug addicted artist so he can penetrate the world of crime.

   The police and press offer rewards for the Gray Seal; the underworld wants him dead. Jimmie squeaks by on brains, luck, and no little skill. His mysterious female angel calls herself the Tocsin, the Alarm. Soon enough she is revealed to be Marie LaSalle and Jimmie, already half in love with her, falls the rest of the way.


   Not that there is much room for romance in the life of the Gray Seal.

   Jimmie first appeared in 1914 and made his final appearance in Detective Fiction Weekly in 1935. His adventures are cleverly written melodrama penned by a writer who specialized in books about adventure with backgrounds in railroading, South Seas adventure, and the world of urban crime.

   Among his better known books, The White Moll, and The Miracle Man (the latter a famous film with Lon Chaney). His books were frequently brought to the silent screen and his long career successful and rewarding.

   But like many popular writers of his time — Harold McGrath comes to mind — he is largely forgotten today. Or would be, if not for Jimmie Dale, the Gray Seal.

   Jimmie isn’t entirely original. He borrows elements from Eugene Sue’s Prince Rodolfe, from the Count of Monte Cristo, from Rocambole, from the Scarlet Pimpernel, from Raffles, from O. Henry’s grifters and Jimmy Valentine, from Arsene Lupin and others, but in Jimmie all the tropes of the mystery man and the super hero come together for the first time.

FRANK L. PACKARD Jimmie DaleThe Adventures of Jimmie Dale appeared in 1917. In 1919 The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale came along. In 1922 the first novel, Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue came out in hardcover.

   Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope appeared in 1930 and finally in 1935, Jimmie Dale and the Missing Hour. But as Robert Sampson points out in Yesterday’s Faces, Volume I: Glory Figures, the saga is really one long book, remarkably concise and suspenseful with the tension of a ticking clock.

   Frank Packard died in 1942 while working on a new adventure of the Gray Seal.


   Much of our view of the mean streets and the urban ‘badlands’ comes from Packard’s books and their impact on others who followed in his footsteps. His tales are told in clean straight forward prose by a man of some culture and learning who understood the needs of storytelling and had something to say about salvation and redemption.

   Virtually every fictional crime fighter who follows is within his shadow. He is simply one of the genre’s most important archetypes, and the transition figure from the quaint pre-war crime as game to the tough guns blazing sagas of the pulps, films, and comics that follow.

   Jimmie may be a romantic and melodramatic figure, but he operates in the world of Hammett and Chandler. That said, Packard does not follow through on the social impact of crime in the same way as the hard-boiled school. He writes superficially about these subjects, but he writes well.

   And his adventures are still worth reading. There’s little a modern reader has to forgive and much to praise. It is no small thing to say that Jimmie Dale can still be read for pleasure, not merely nostalgia or his historical importance.

   The criminals lurk in the darkness, and the Gray Seal stands ready to strike, and in his wake every masked, caped, and spandex clad hero and mystery man stand ready to carry on his crusade. They are all in his debt, as are we.


   From Lamont Cranston to Bruce Wayne, from Richard Wentworth to Peter Parker, Jimmie Dale and the Gray Seal are where it all truly began, and more than worth revisiting to be surprised at just how much of the genre came fully formed from his adventures.

   Note: Norvel Page, who took over the Spider from R.T.M Scott (creator of Aurelius Smith aka Secret Service Smith), was a particular fan of the Gray Seal and used many of Packard’s ideas in the Spider’s saga.

   As Page greatly influenced both Michael Avallone and Mickey Spillane, so Jimmie Dale’s influence continues.

   While there are other figures of equal importance, some which came before him, Jimmie brings all the elements together for the first time and thus holds pride of place.