adventure / novella
adventure / novella
Some time in the last few decades of the 19th century, someone had the bright idea of printing affordable books for a broader readership, specifically targeting those people who might be intimidated by the notion of picking up a brick by Dickens or who were simply unaccustomed to reading as a pastime.
Such books were labelled dime novels in the US, for the simple reason that they cost a dime to buy. In general, these were fast-paced adventure stories, often set in the Wild West and featuring well-known heroes and villains of the day. Not necessarily the most literary of books, dime novels did not aspire to do more than two things: entertain and create a growing demand for more reading matter of the same kind.
The Notorious Black Bart is a loving recreation of the good old dime novel. Ms Wasserman breathes life into the genre and delivers a fun little read complete with a hero, a bad guy, onomatopoetic expressions such as Bang! and Ping!, and an uncomplicated plot where the ending is not really in doubt; it’s the how that has the reader turning the page.
Ms Wasserman knows her setting, both geographically and historically. Stage coaches thunder by with lathered horses, people travel by steamboat and train, drop by livery stables for a horse. San Francisco is thriving as a consequence of the gold rush, men of all kinds converge on California to make their fortune, and one of them ends up robbing stage coaches for a living. Well, for revenge, Black Bart would insist, but that I leave to future readers to find out for themselves.
Black Bart’s nemesis, Special Agent James Hume is based on a real agent—just as Bart is based on a real criminal. As in all dime novels, characterisation is achieved through swift pen strokes rather than in-depth portrayal, but Ms Wasserman ensures her protagonists have their fair share of quirks and also gives Black Bart a back story that somehow mitigates his crimes. To a point.
I enjoyed this quick read but dime novels were never sophisticated reading matter and today’s reader may therefore find the story a tad too straightforward? Perhaps, also, the price of this short novella-type read of 124 pages is perhaps a little high? I also found the framing—The Notorious Black Bart is read aloud by an English lord to his two servants—somewhat unnecessary. Despite this, I applaud Ms Wasserman for bringing to life the type of novel that served as a portal to reading for those who had neither the benefit of a thorough education or the money to spend on “real” books.
© Anna Belfrage
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