Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dime Novels - The Jeff Clayton series

     I am in the process of compiling whatever information possible regarding a series of dime novels (or, in this case, the sub-genre of "thick books") that I have been collecting for quite some time. I first came across the Jeff Clayton series while researching my thesis, and have been fortunate enough to find more copies since.
     Inspired by the real-life exploits of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the late nineteenth century, the dime novel detective was among the most successful of dime novel genres, eventually surpassing the original inexpensive escapism hero, the frontiersman, who had dominated the industry ever since the first dime novel in the 1860s. Jeff Clayton is an excellent example of the quintessential dime novel detective, containing all of the required attributes of such a character. Based in a bustling metropolis, in this case New York City (and often traveling to other locales, from San Francisco to the Orient), Jeff Clayton has the prerequisite detective co-stars; his two assistants - his protégé, Harper Gordon, and the streetwise, uncouth, but undeniably loyal Snoopy Havens. There is also Pong, Clayton's Chinese servant, as well as a collection of other named and unnamed lieutenants who answer Clayton’s call to justice at a moment’s notice. Many of these supporting characters constitute archetypes that would later appear in the pulp hero periodicals, in the form of the assistants and agents that aid in the exploits of Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Spider, and others. Like many dime novel sleuths, Clayton spends a good amount of time explaining to his dumbfounded co-stars the intricate process he uses to arrive at conclusions, similar to the manner in which Holmes feels the need to explain his actions to a confused Watson in Doyle's stories. Clayton battles a menagerie of villains: from local crime-lords, to socialist infiltrators to Chinese tong-men, Clayton’s rogues’ gallery runs the gamut of stock early twentieth century evil-doers.

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     The series was published by the Arthur Westbrook Company in the decades following the turn of the century, fifty years after Beadles and Adams published the first dime novel. While the Adventure Series of “thick books” in which Clayton appeared ran from 1908 to at least 1928, Clayton’s stories were in publication only between 1910 and 1912, in 34, roughly 300-page novels. The Jeff Clayton stories were all written under the pseudonym of "William Ward," and appeared on an erratic schedule; sometimes monthly, sometimes not. Dime novel fandom tradition considers the Jeff Clayton stories to be rewrites of previous detective fictions; those of Sexton Blake, who appeared in the UK novel series Union Jack, albeit the setting relocated from England to the American eastern seaboard.

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     My particular interest in Jeff Clayton, aside from its place in American popular literary history, stems from the first issue I read. Jeff Clayton's Fatal Shot (1911) I picked up on a whim, thinking it may help in my graduate work. I was pleased to find, upon finishing the text, that it related to another of my concentrations. The antagonist of the story is attempting to resurrect, what is obviously an allusion to, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a quasi-Christian movement in late nineteenth century China. The antagonist of the story is working to further the work of “Hung-sew-tsenen,” which, when spoken aloud, sounds a good deal similar to Hung Hsiu-ch'üan (in the Wade-Giles system of Romanization, predominantly in use until the latter half of the twentieth century), or Hong Xiuquan (in the more modern pinyin system). Hong Xiuquan was a scholar who had failed the Qing civil service exams numerous times and who had come to believe that he was in fact the second son of God, younger brother to Jesus, the Taiping Rebellion swept across China, encompassing an impressive amount of land, and even taking the ancient Ming capital of Nanjing (renamed Tianjing, or “Heavenly Capital,” during the Taiping occupation) as its own seat of government. Highly nationalistic, encouraging ethnic Han Chinese to rise against the foreign, Manchurian Qing who had ruled China since the mid-1600s, the Taipings were eventually defeated, due in large part to the aid offered the Qing by Western Powers; the West was fearful of the powerful and modernized state the Taipings threatened to create, as opposed to the weak and subservient Qing, which the West had been able to exploit for quite some time. The Jeff Clayton story, in its relation to the Taipings (50-plus years after the movement's collapse) appealed to me, as I had spent a large amount of time studying the Rebellion; it was the topic of my Senior's Thesis in 2008, and an avenue of research I intend to pursue further in the future. Aside from the use of similar-sounding names, other aspects of the story, such as the antagonist’s lineage and religious convictions, point to the Taipings as obvious inspirations. I also found it interesting that Jeff Clayton happened to battle a gang of Chinese insurgents the very same year that the Qing dynasty collapsed and the Republic of China was formed, following the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. From that issue, I have begun collecting the series wherever I happen to find copies.
     The Jeff Clayton series represents all of the attributes, good and bad, of the dime novel detective. He had plenty of time to learn from his progenitors; the series first appeared in 1910, during the days of the dime novel's decline and the pulp magazine’s ascension as America's chief avenue for inexpensive, prose escapism. If a copy can be found, it is well worth the purchase; for either a glimpse into America's literary past, or simply as a good read filled with action and thrills.

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Cox, J. Randolph. The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000.