THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT
"The saloon is full to overflowing--full of brawny, rough, and grisly men; full of ribald songs and maudlin curses; full of foul atmospheres, impregnated with the fumes of vile whisky, and worse tobacco, and full of sights and scenes, exciting and repulsive."
- From Deadwood Dick, The Prince of the Road
“Sounds of debauchery could be heard on every side - the wild yells of drunken wretches, some of them in delirium tremens, the maudlin songs of those who still had a partial hold on their senses, the twanging bango and buzzing violin playing weird music for the reeling and shameless dancers. Ah, the sight would have sickened the heart of one not used to it. It was stronger than any temperance sermon that was ever preached.”
- From Old Broadbrim, the Quaker Detective
Like many outlaw and detective stories, Deadwood Dick and Old Broadbrim reflect a barely-contained fascination with vice and the criminal underworld. Readers could experience the thrill of entering this world and return unscathed. Scholar Pamela Bedore argues that “detective fiction … functions through a careful balancing of tensions around potentially contaminating threats and the narrative strategies used to contain them,”1 an observation that applies to outlaw fiction as well. To most readers - and certainly to author Edward L. Wheeler, who rarely travelled beyond his native Philadelphia - the sinful saloon environment must have seemed safely far-away or already a thing of the past, although the vices of cursing, alcohol, tobacco, and “repulsive” entertainment were very much present in their lives.
Urban detective fiction took place closer to home, and so its strategies for containment of vice are correspondingly more explicit. The second excerpt, above, expresses nostalgia for the “honest” days when the working class and upper class lived in harmony while condemning the current state of out-of-control crime, social disintegration, and the encroachment of ethnically diverse immigrant populations. Depictions of vice and criminality, then, manage to critique frightening contemporary social problems even as they invite readers to vicariously experience socially unacceptable lifestyles.
1. Bedore, Pamela. Dime Novels and the Roots of American Detective Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print. 2.