The spread of literacy and the print media fed the nineteenth century desire for history, mystery, and edification. Story papers (newspapers devoted to fiction) were wildly popular in urban areas.
By and large, story paper fiction was serialized, assuring the purchase of the next edition. This can be likened to the format of television series in which there are numerous short takes and multiple climaxes.
Dime novels were popular and readily available to their vast public of middle- and lower-class workers and youth roughly from 1860 to the end of the nineteenth century. The novels were about 100 pages in length, varied in price, and were issued monthly. Each novel was complete in itself; many spawned companion tales or sequels.
The world of and represented by the dime novels was distinctly different from the literary fiction of the nineteenth century (
) and from the popular fiction of genteel culture (Mary Janvrin’s
The term “dime novel” was used to connote sensational detective or blood-and-thunder novels in pamphlet form. Because the dime novel depended on the newly-acquired ability to read, its prose remained elementary. Dime novels never reached the rhetorical range of finely crafted novels, though often their stories were as powerful.
In 1860, the United States was close to its not-too-distant past (the Revolution, the War of 1812) and poised on the brink of calamity (the Civil War). Early numbers in dime novel series dealt with the hardships, defeats, and triumphs of frontier pioneers and fostered the growth of the strong, silent type who metamorphosed into a detective when transferred to the city. The frontier adventures make up the majority of dime novel titles.
Other titles might be referred to as “rip-offs” of
. In 1860 sentiment both for and against the abolition of slavery was strong. It is difficult to know accurately the influence dime novels may have had on their readers’ beliefs and values, but certainly there must have been some influence.
It is felt that in the early years of publication, the novels gave fairly accurate depictions of the daily lives, struggles, and adventures of their characters.
As time went on and competition in this mass cultural medium became fierce, verisimilitude suffered.
Only about ten percent of the dime novels were detective fiction, with only five percent of those titles set in urban areas.
More often than not, the detectives were portrayed as adventure heroes with a peculiar penchant for disguises and varying accents. The use of disguises and accents would occasionally resurface in later mysteries and thrillers, notably in John Buchan’s
. Such devices seem more appropriate to adventure stories rather than to tales of mystery and detection. Most of the dime novel tales required the suspension of belief and plausibility. The plots of many dime detective novels were closely associated with theatrical melodramas, or were often constructed out of the events reported in daily and weekly newspapers. These events would serve as the basis for flights of fancy; rarely were the stories narratives of what actually happened.
It is too easy—and perhaps inaccurate—to say that dime novel detective fiction is simply the Western transplanted to the city, though emphasis on incident rather than on plot is a common thread. “Mysteries of the city” was the first genre of dime novel fiction to achieve a huge success. The stories, set in small towns and large cities, told of urban squalor, elite decadence, and criminal underworlds. These “mysteries” are more accurately viewed as narratives of exposure (of vice, of injustice) than as narratives of detection. Their appeal, based in part on their localized settings and politics, was primarily to working-class men and women.
Dime novels were considered to be “moral” publications, in the opinion of their publishers and many critics. In instructions to its authors, the proprietors of Beadle and Company, one of the largest producers of dime novels, cautioned:
We prohibit all things offensive to good taste, in expression or incident . . . .
We prohibit subjects or characters that carry an immoral taint. . . .
We prohibit the repetition of any occurrence which, though true, is yet better untold . . . .
We prohibit what cannot be read with satisfaction by every right-minded person—old and young alike.
The reputation for corruption, luridness, and gross sensationalism attributed to dime novels should more accurately be ascribed to pulp magazines, which signalled the end of the dime novels’ popularity in the early part of the twentieth century. The authors of many dime novels included and promulgated their moral beliefs and values in their work. Many of these authors were teachers, clergymen, and newspaper editors. William Everett, in a criticism of dime novels, found them to be morally unobjectionable, though their style and composition left much to be desired.
The publishers of dime novels could pride themselves on products which were cheap and cheaply sensational—but not immoral.