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Montreal Review of Books: Criminal Neglect

By Brian Busby
Montreal Review of Books

packard_wire coverThe only Frank L. Packard book I’ve ever found at a Montreal bookstore was in the “FREE” box at Cheap Thrills.

I couldn’t believe my luck.

You don’t hear Packard’s name in Montreal these days, but a century ago he was the city’s bestselling novelist. His fame was such that British publisher Hodder & Stoughton took to substituting the usual author credit with slogans like “It’s hard to beat PACKARD”.

It’s thought that Packard sold well over four million books in his lifetime, which began in 1877 in Montreal and ended sixty-five years later. Commercially, his greatest creation was Jimmie Dale, a masked millionaire crime fighter known to the public as “The Gray Seal.” The Green Hornet, The Shadow, and The Batman followed in Jimmie’s wake.

The reissue of Packard’s 1918 novel The Wire Devils focuses on “The Hawk,” an altogether different sort of masked man. On the surface, he is in every way a gentleman thief. The well-groomed Hawk rides the rails like a hobo, but it’s only so that he can commit crimes of a very clever nature. His lawless rivals, the Wire Devils of the title, derive their name from a mysterious ability to tap into a railroad’s telegraph, which in turn allows them to communicate with one another by code. The Hawk listens, then swoops in to steal targeted money and items before the gang has a chance to arrive.

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The Wire Devils