Decades before the invention of the modern comic book and other contemporary forms of entertainment, dime novels were pioneering some of the conventions that would later become commonplace. For example, in the growing field of detective fiction, Old Sleuth (the pseudonym of Harlan Page Halsey) created an array of colorful and quirky detective characters, and even experimented with having their paths cross from time to time. One might dare call it the “Old Sleuth Bibliographic Universe.” A few years ago, we shared one of these “crossover events” as a Project Gutenberg eBook: The Twin Ventriloquists. Our latest release, produced with help from the Distributed Proofreaders project, is an earlier story from the same series: the origin story of Nimble Ike, the Trick Ventriloquist, a self-described “rousing tale of fun and frolic.”
The book tells of the early career of Nimble Ike, a young orphan boy raised by a globetrotting magician, who is left to fend for himself and decides to use his incredible powers of ventriloquism to fight crime (and play the occasional prank). Along the way, he befriends a more experienced detective and uncovers a plot against a young banker. It is written in Old Sleuth’s signature style, with the narrative frequently broken up by repetitive, staccato dialog (the better to fill pages with, when you’re churning out dime novels at a frantic pace). While not a literary masterpiece, the book delivers what its audience likely expected from it: a bit of mystery, a bit of action, and a bit of humor (though the prank sequences are unlikely to elicit much laughter from a modern reader).
Nimble Ike would go on to star or co-star in another six adventures written by Old Sleuth, so apparently there was a market for ventriloquism-based detective fiction.
If you want to experience this story for yourself, you can find the full text available for online reading (or download in popular eBook formats) at Project Gutenberg, or you can view the original scanned book in our Digital Library.