Coronavirus escape into 1920

With a combination of LibriVox and Project Gutenberg editions, I have just finished my first Coronavirus isolation novel… That is, the book I started reading at bedtime around the same time the virus alerts began… turning back the clock an even century.

And it coincidentally is about a woman practicing a certain amount of social distancing herself… In a New York garrett a century ago, leading a double life as a costumed crime-fighter, of sorts. She learned to use a revolver from her father while they were in South America and he was a mining engineer. Her “costume” is really just an added veil to keep her face hidden. She does more dressing-up in her secret identity disguise, as Gypsy Nan, member of an underworld gang.

The fact that the book was published in 1920 and had the word “white” in the title had me a bit concerned that I was about to enter a world of anachronistic overt racism…

But, no, “The White Moll” — a social worker style do-gooder turned armed vigilante — gets her name from the era’s colloquial use of the word “white” — as dated as saying “You can look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls”, instead of telling someone to do a Google search.

Of course I just happened to have a 1918 Funk & Wagnalls handy, so I did look it up:

“White: (Pop.) Fair and honorable, straightforward, honest.”

<<“Meet de moll I was tellin’ youse about, Mag. She’s white—all de way up. She’s white, Mag; she’s a white moll—take it from me.”
The White Moll!>>

So, at first she becomes what a police officer derisively calls…
<<“The White Moll, the Little Saint of the East Side, that lends a helping hand to the crooks to get ’em back on the straight and narrow again!”>>

Coincidentally, our heroine’s real name is Rhoda Gray, and she was created by the same author who created another New York underworld vigilante with a dual identity, called The Gray Seal, a pre-1920 precursor of The Green Hornet.

I have been falling asleep to a chapter or two a night of the LibriVox audio book version, 21 chapters worth. Being able to search for text in the one big page Project Gutenberg text version provided a great supplement at the breakfast table when I was trying to make sure I had fallen asleep during anything important!

The writing is a bit florid at times, but Librivox reader Rowdy Delaney is very good and saves you the trouble of being distracted by the slang spellings with all those “de moll I was tellin’ youse about” constructions intended to convey the uneducated under classes. The world of dimly candle lit tenement apartments, filthy alleyways and predatory crooks with colorful slang names was a great escape. It really picked up speed toward the end, even including a dramatic car chase! It is a shame the silent film version, which also came out in 1920, is on the Lost films list!

The novel also gives the impression of having been serialized in a magazine, because there are occasional passages that remind you of what has gone before in ways that work very nicely with the audiobook format.

The book was made into a now lost silent film… Or at least partly lost. It has an IMDb entry (where I swiped this poster) but its summary there includes a plot spoiler that I was sorry I had looked at before I got to that part of the book.

I’m fascinated by Packard’s decision to create a female character who is a bit like his previous male hero, Jimmy Dale, The Gray Seal. I wonder if Hollywood inspired him to create a vehicle for Pearl White? According to what I have seen online both the book and the film were released in 1920, although perhaps the book was serialized in magazines or newspapers before the single-volume publication. Packard was good at keeping the story moving along, and while the dialogue does get a bit thick, I liked it better than the last Jimmy Dale that I read. By the way, I got into Jimmy Dale after doing some research on old time radio shows including the Green Hornet. The “Gray Seal” clearly inspired the “Hornet seal” (a calling card left at the scene of the crime to tease police or rival crooks) , and the idea of a masked hero as wealthy playboy with a secret identity that the police think is a crook, but who really is fighting crime in ways the police cannot. He also has a utility belt that may have been part of the inspiration for Batman’s counterpart. But his is mostly lock picking and safe cracking tools.

One huge difference from all subsequent characters, the Gray Seal actually took his orders from a mysterious woman… blackmailing him into doing one good deed after another, and as much of a leader of a double life as he was. But even more mysterious about it.

The White Moll also has a mysterious male Adventurer in her underground life, so I was half expecting do you have the book morph into another Gray Seal sequel. But he is not Jimmy Dale.

These books are certainly not great literature, but they are the kind of entertainment people could turn to before the days of comic books, radio and television.

mild-mannered reporter who sank into computers and the Web during graduate school in the 1980s and '90s, then taught journalism, media studies and Web production, retiring to write and play more music.

Posted in 1920s, fiction, Librivox, literature, media studies, movies, popular culture, Project Gutenberg, writing

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