The dime novels spawned a number of characters who found their way into popular culture. Although most are now forgotten, many were influential in the evolution of mainstream entertainment.
Long before the Harry Potter phenomenon, readers enjoyed reading about the school-day adventures of young prodigies. Perhaps the first major “boy wonder” character was Jack Harkaway, an orphan who eventually graduates from Oxford, having globe-trotting adventures before and after. Harkaway’s adventures became a bit hard to follow toward the end: his original author, Bracebridge Hemyng, split with his British publisher to work in America. At this point, the original publisher hired new writers to continue the series in England while Hemyng wrote new adventures in America. Needless to say, continuity suffers when readers try to reconcile these two incompatible continuations of the story.
The American answer to Jack Harkaway, Frank Merriwell made his way to Yale rather than Oxford, and his adventures had a heavier emphasis on sports than Harkaway’s, but the target audience was the same. The Merriwell stories were so successful that Frank was eventually provided with a younger brother named Dick so that some of Frank’s old haunts could be revisited. Other imitators attempting to profit from the Harkaway/Merriwell formula included Fred Fearnot, Phil Rushington, Jack Lightfoot, Dick Daresome and Jack Standfast.
Although most dime novels were designed to be read in any order, and their heroes rarely changed significantly from book to book, these school adventures offer an exception to the rule, allowing readers to follow their heroes through many major life events.
Before Sherlock Holmes became the world’s most famous detective, a variety of sleuths solved crimes in the pages of dime novels. However, the traditional dime novel detective tended to favor action and excitement over logical deduction.
Old Sleuth, first seen in 1872, was initially portrayed as a young man disguised as an old man, but in later books he was simply an aged detective. Old Cap. Collier, who appeared on the scene in 1883, foreshadowed later superhero tales with his mysterious background and superhuman strength. Nick Carter was easily the longest-running dime novel detective; his first adventure took place in 1891, but the character was repeatedly reinvented over the years, and new books were still being written about him as recently as 1990. Although he couldn’t rival Nick Carter for longevity, Old King Brady, a Roman Catholic detective, still managed to feature in a large number of adventures between 1885 and 1912, sometimes in combination with another popular character named Young Sleuth. The Old King Brady stories are also noteworthy for providing a slightly more realistic portrayal of detective work than the average dime novel.
Some of the early science fiction that appeared in dime novels dealt with fantastic inventions, and by far the most famous dime novel inventors were Frank Reade and his son Frank Reade, Jr. Over the course of nearly 200 stories published between 1876 and 1899, these heroes explored the world and overcame dangers with the help of steam-powered inventions. Another popular inventor character was Jack Wright, who was active in the 1890's in more than 100 adventures, all written by Luis P. Senarens, the author of many Frank Reade Jr. tales. While many of Wright's adventures involved undersea exploration, they were certainly not limited to that domain -- in an unusual example of crossover fiction, Wright once encountered Jesse and Frank James. In another intersection of real-life personas and dime novel adventure, a fictionalized version of Tom Edison, Jr. had nearly a dozen published adventures in 1891 and 1892.
The exploits of outlaws were a popular subject of many early dime novels. Some of these stories were inherited from the British penny dreadful tradition, such as the adventures of highwayman Dick Turpin, but others had a distinctly American flavor. The (substantially fictionalized) adventures of Jesse James and his brother Frank were an early and popular example. Concerns from postal authorities about distributing works glorifying banditry eventually led to the decline of this subgenre.
Given the broad popularity of Western stories, it is not surprising that dime novels introduced a number of long-running characters in the genre. Deadwood Dick, one of the earliest recurring dime novel characters, arrived on the scene in 1877. Something of an anti-hero, he wore black and openly defied the law. Many of his adventures involved attempts to move on from his outlaw past. He eventually had a son, Deadwood Dick, Jr., who had his own series of adventures. The similarly-named Diamond Dick was a more unambiguously heroic cowboy in jewel-encrusted clothes, featured in stories between 1878 and 1911; his son, Diamond Dick, Jr., also took the spotlight for a number of adventures. In the later years of the dime novel era, Young Wild West arrived on the scene; as his name suggests, he is a youthful hero, orphaned as a baby but blessed with tremendous luck and skill for the remainder of his days. He featured in more than 600 stories between 1902 and 1915.
While there were few recurring characters in the dime novel romances – the formula did not lend itself to sequels – there were important archetypes to be found. One of the most prominent was the “working-girl,” the young woman forced to work for a living. Books like Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl; or, Death at the Wheel and Leonie Locke; or The Romance of a Beautiful New York Working-Girl told variations of the Cinderella story using the then-contemporary issue of growing female employment.
3. Edward T. LeBlanc, "A Brief History of Dime Novels: Formats and Contents, 1860-1933" in Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks, ed. Larry E. Sullivan and Lydia Cushman Schurman (New York: Haworth Press, 1996), 18.