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The Wire Devils by Frank L. Packard
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The Wire Devils (1918)

by Frank L. Packard

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The Wire Devils is the 1918 equivalent of a Tom Clancy high-tech mystery-thriller. The protagonist of the Wire Devils is Harry Maul, alias ‘The Hawk’, a master criminal who has made his way to the western town of Selkirk City located somewhere in the Rockies. The antagonists are The Wire Devils, a group of technically sophisticated organized thieves who have hijacked the railroad’s telegraph system and are using it to further their own nefarious ends.

The book opens with a breaking and entering. The Hawk, using skeleton keys, enters a small station without a night operator, sits down at the telegraph sounder, cuts himself into the main circuit, waits a few minutes and then, as the sounder begins to chatter, copies a telegraph transmission consisting of a jumble of letters. The jumble is a Caesar shift cypher with varying null patterns which The Hawk proceeds to decrypt. It details the plans for a Wire Devil heist which is scheduled to happen that very evening.

What follows is a series of robberies all of which are foiled by The Hawk. That is, each time the Wire Devils set up a robbery, The Hawk interferes with its success. The Wire Devils become very aggravated by The Hawk’s intrusions and make repeated attempts to eliminate him. Naturally, all of this crime on railroad property has the railroad detectives out in force. They are aware of the existence of both the gang and The Hawk and believe him to be the Wire Devils mastermind. As a result, the Hawk finds it necessary to avoid and outwit both the gang and the law.

Packard worked as a civil engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railroad before he began writing railroad and mystery fiction and, not surprisingly, The Wire Devils is filled with technical information conveyed to the reader via narration and character dialog. The railroad theme allows for the casual introduction of facts of railroad practice and the use of the telegraph as an instrument of crime provides Packard a platform for discussing telegraphy. This includes many aspects of telegraphic practice, issues involved in building an undetected line tap, and methods one might use to intercept a telegraph message without being detected.

The text is a testament to Packard’s ability as a writer of popular fiction and his well phrased word pictures and plot twists still holds the reader’s interest. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in railroad fiction. ( )
1 vote alco261 | Nov 15, 2013 |
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Two switch lights twinkled; one at the east, and one at the west end of the siding.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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