The Spotted Six or The Mystery of Calvert Hathaway

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Guest Post by Richard Schmidt, Coordinator of Library Operations and Resident Dime Novel Reviewer


Warning: Spoilers Ahead

I will be spoiling several of the plot twists in my review, and while I can’t recommend reading this particular dime novel, you can check out the entire issue of Brave and Bold right here before continuing any further.

Cover of Thorpe, Fred, “The Spotted Six or The Mystery of Calvert Hathaway” (1903). Brave and Bold. 4. 4.

The first time I wrote about dime novels for Digital Dialogs, I briefly discussed the history of the format as well as my personal history working with the vast holdings here in Special Collections at the University of South Florida Libraries – Tampa campus. For this Halloween post, I wanted to revisit the most frightening cover I have encountered (so far) while my team and I have been digitizing issues of dime novels. Will the content between the covers be equally disturbing and provide a spooky chill up my spine for the season?

New York, New York’s own Street & Smith published over four hundred issues of Brave and Bold between 1902 and 1911. Issue number five, titled “The Spotted Six or The Mystery of Calvert Hathaway,” is by Fred Thorpe, and was published on January 24th,1903. Novelist and frequent dime novel writer, Thorpe (real name: Frederick A. Stearns, Jr.) passed away three years before this issue was published, which probably confirms the existence of the supernatural. I bet you didn’t expect to read that in a blog post today, now did you?

“The Spotted Six” is about an unlucky lad named Richard “Dick” Firman, who ends up in hot water after the murder of his former employer. Due to a heated argument between Firman and his boss the same day that the body was discovered, the boy is now the chief suspect in the police’s investigation. There are few clues left at the crime scene, save for a dagger with Firman’s initials on the handle and a note that says rather ominously, “The Spotted Six survives!”

Suddenly, Firman is approached by a mysterious private detective named Enos Gritman, who, without giving any reason whatsoever, promises to help the boy out of trouble if he follows his instructions to the letter. This poor kid is then thrust into a web of shady characters, false identities, sleeping gas-filled carriages, and more or less convincing disguises! With the cops and The Spotted Six hot on his trail, Firman is forced to rely less on his wits, and more on his ability to follow Gritman’s unintentionally comical and highly specific advice.

What transpires over the next 32 pages is shockingly complex and I don’t want to spoil anything, mainly because you’ll think that I am pulling your leg. Had this story been published in the 1960s by either Marvel or DC Comics as a monthly comic book, “The Spotted Six” would have been at least a year or two’s worth of issues. The twists and turns of this story come flying at the reader so fast that I still have windburn from them. If an up-and-coming writer wanted to learn how to destroy a reader’s patience with seemingly never-ending plot convolutions, then this text is an essential teaching tool.

So much happens in this dime novel that the reveal of just who “The Spotted Six” are, and what their bizarre history entails, made me wonder if I’d be able to finish the story before my brain was completely overwhelmed with so many miniscule story details. To make matters worse, subtlety is not the author’s strength as characters practically wink at and/or elbow the ribs of the reader in case they are getting lost along the way. I know that dime novels were meant for kids, but I suspect their target audience had no trouble keeping up.

While Firman appears to be the main character of this dime novel initially, a large part of the narrative features Enos Gritman talking people into trusting him using only the most enigmatic clues to his motivation and the vaguest explanations possible. Gritman’s character owes a great deal to the likes of Sherlock Holmes as his powers of deduction border on the supernatural. He also has a quasi-psychic connection to Firman that only adds to this story’s very long list of contrivances.

It is time that I address the gorilla in the room. What lead me to check out “The Spotted Six”, and review it so close to Halloween on Digital Dialogs is its rather frightening and audacious cover image of a young man in a cellar about to be tossed into a fiery furnace by what I thought was a gorilla. The creature is, in fact, an orangutan named Zeko, who is commanded by a young girl named Irma (the daughter of Firman’s enemy in the story). I was immediately reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which I just spoiled the ending to by even mentioning it here. I’m sorry about that.

The cover image in question occurs very early in the story (page 5), and I really wish it hadn’t. The less fantastical plot machinations and dialogue heavy chapters between this moment and the dime novel’s explosive conclusion made “The Spotted Six” a bit of a chore to get through. Is this a spooky story ripe for your Halloween reading? If you’re afraid of neither apes nor dropped plot threads then no, this is not a chilling tale. However, “The Spotted Six” taught me the phrase “By jingo!” and for that, I am forever grateful.

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