West Virginia University

The Compact of Death (1905) Spotlight

About the Novel

In The Compact of Death, or, Nick Carter’s Singed Hair Clue, the detective Nick Carter is sightseeing in Chicago when he takes on the case of the Alanson brothers. This wealthy pair of Swedish-Italian heirs are on the run from the Sicilian Mafia after they refuse to pay “tribute” and the eldest brother Rupert shoots a member in the leg when Rupert catches him trying to set fire to his family’s vineyard (2). The primary antagonist, Lucio Palazzo, is unique to the Nick Carter series in his simultaneous bucking of and extreme adherence to the depravity so often ascribed to Italians in dime novel serialization. Unexpected instances of racial and gender progressivism also appear throughout the work, including a use of disguise that defies the traditional racial power dynamics found in Nick Carter novels, as well as the use of drag by one of the Alanson brothers.

Front Cover of New Nick Carter no. 456, featuring Ralph Alanson in drag

In the first chapter, Rupert Alanson is beheaded and Palazzo has the head sent to Carter’s hotel. Palazzo gained entrance to the young man’s safehouse by imitating Carter’s voice. In general, the motif of disguise and mimicry is one of the most popular across The New Nick Carter Weekly series, but these powers are typically only harnessed by the detective and his associates. This reversal signifies a tangible expression of Palazzo’s power to subvert Carter’s expectations concerning southern Italians as ignorant and incapable. Palazzo’s agency also compromises Carter’s ability to solve the case. Lastly, Palazzo’s mimicry reclaims an agency that the series routinely denies, most especially to Southern Italians. Carter is thrown off his game, not only because he is in Chicago rather than New York, but because Palazzo gets the best of him and Carter unwittingly and inappropriately dons a cowboy and lake captain disguises rather than one of his more racially charged costumes to infiltrate the local criminal gangs.

This inversion is further exemplified by the dynamic between Palazzo and his henchman, Rolles, a wanted criminal in California. Though the American nativist Rolles routinely refers to his partner via pejoratives like “dago,” the power resides with the Sicilian Palazzo (11-12). Such discrimination would have been more common among Southern Italians, such as Palazzo, than Northern Italians, such as the Alansons whose half Swedish ancestry also serves to distance them from the supposedly backwards Sicilian. In Rolles’ contract work for Palazzo, he fakes a betrayal of his boss to lure Carter into a trap. After the detective is rendered unconscious, Carter is sealed inside an old oil tank, which deprives him of all ability to read Palazzo.

A final, important inversion occurs during a ball for Italian diplomats that Palazzo has organized. Carter and his associates infiltrate the ball, and Ralph Alanson, the beheaded victim’s brother is assigned the disguise of Signora Moletto, a wealthy patroness of the Milan Opera House. Not only does this assignment not offend his masculinity, he decides to embrace it fully, assuming popularized aspects of femininity to exploit Palazzo’s sexual vulnerabilities. This expression of gender fluidity isn’t seen as a taboo, but instead aids immensely in the execution of Carter’s scheme. Ralph seems to be inhabiting both headspaces here, fully in touch with his feminine form while simultaneously utilizing the hidden strength of his male body.

The act is given away when Alanson attempts to employ his sexual leverage to lure Palazzo to his residence where he intends to murder him. The criminal catches on and flees, but is eventually captured along with Rolles. Both men are tried in a court of law and executed for their crimes. Ralph Alanson emigrates to Australia in search of a life free from the Mafia. Though foiled in the end, Palazzo serves as a fascinating counterbalance to Carter’s more typically gullible and two-dimensional Southern Italian antagonists.

Nick Carter Weekly no. 456 was reprinted in the New Magnet Library twice, in nos. 510 and 1137. It was first published on September 23, 1905, and has been attributed to Frederic Van Rensselaer Dey.

About the Author

Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey (1861-1922) was born in Watkins Glen, New York on February 10, 1861. He graduated from Columbia Law School and practiced law until he became ill.

Dey wrote his first story for Beadle and Adams in 1887 while recovering from this illness. After taking over for Nick Carter creator John R. Coryell, Dey wrote over a thousand Nick Carter stories for Street & Smith, consulting with Deputy Commissioner Faurot and Inspector Thomas Byrnes on many of them. He died on April 25, 1922 at Gramercy Park’s Hotel Broztell of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His body was discovered by then Smith & Street managing editor Charles E. MacLean after Smith & Street president Ormond S. Smith received a note from Dey outlining “his intention” (“Creator of ‘Nick Carter” 1). In addition to his wife, Hattie, Dey was survived by a brother, Warren S. Dey. Dey ended his letter to Smith by requesting assistance in finding his brother a place to live. Coryell’s son Russell took issue with the headlines of Dey’s New York Times obituary, which stated: “Creator of ‘Nick Carter’ Kills Himself.” Russell Coryell’s demand for a correction was ignored by the editor because the title was “good copy” (Cox 497).

Discussion Questions

  • Rupert’s beheading and the attempted suffocation of Carter are atypical of many Nick Carter stories in their overt violence. What does the inclusion of these barbaric means of execution tell us about the author’s assumptions about the tactics of Sicilian organized crime? Does it seem like he is imbuing Palazzo with a unique kind of psychopathy or, much like later gangster movies, is he suggesting that such methods of vengeance are par for the course? How does the primality of this act contradict Palazzo’s supposed refinement?
  • How does Palazzo’s imitation of Nick Carter as a means of fooling Rupert Alanson serve to invert the power structure between the seemingly untouchable detective and the Sicilian? Does this move serve as a reclamation of identity or is it meant to showcase a perversion of Carter’s penchant for “disguise” (itself little more than popularized minstrelsy)?
  • In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler discusses gender performativity as a repetition of actions that reinforce assumed aspects of identity. These actions serve to inscribe the body of the performer with the gender that they are displaying. Ralph’s comfort in the role of Signora Moletto seems to go beyond good acting to a genuine expression of subconscious gender expression that has found its performative mode in drag. As it concerns Butler’s fluid understanding, how does Alanson’s performance help to challenge his ostensible masculinity? Where does this occurrence fit into a larger discussion of gender identity if Butler defines gender as a repeated act?
  • Carter’s Italian disguises are typically centered around the character of the Italian laborer, a caricature of Southern Italian immigrant identity meant to represent ignorance and filth. How do you think that his assumption of the identity of the aristocratic Northern Italian Signor Moletto challenges or plays into his conception of the Southern Italian body, which has for the detective so frequently represented a kind of irreconcilable depravity?
  • Butler and Foucault both emphasize the inherently discursive nature of sexuality, and Palazzo reinforces this definition by buying into Alanson’s performance. What does Palazzo’s reaction to the revelation of Ralph’s performance (stabbing the boy in the chest) say about contemporary attitudes towards public perceptions of queerness? Do you think that the stabbing is primarily motivated by self-preservation or revenge for expression of a possibly dormant sexuality?
  • Sicilians and Southern Italians in general are far more often portrayed as antagonists than their Northern Italian counterparts in The New Nick Carter Weekly. In Imagining Italians, Joseph P. Cosco discusses how waves of “new immigrants” at the turn of the 20th century sparked a re-evaluation of American attitudes towards Italians in general, shifting public sentiment away from an appreciation of the Italian Renaissance aesthetic and cultural heritage and towards the adoption of racial biases primarily leveled towards those from the southern half of Italy. How does Palazzo symbolize both the supposed depravity of the Sicilian and the refinement of the Northern Italian? Are the costumes of the Milanese aristocrats that Carter and his associates don a direct response to Palazzo’s refusal to be boxed in to their simple notions of Southern Italians and if so, how do they attempt to create the dichotomy that the detective so desires to be infallible?

Further Reading

  • Bedore, Pamela. Dime Novels and the Roots of American Detective Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Discusses the history and evolution of detective fiction and its tropes.

  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

Great source for information on gender performativity and sexual expression. Talks about how gender expression serves to create an inscribed body.

  • Cosco, Joseph P. Imagining Italians: the Clash of Romance and Race in American Perceptions, 1880-1910. State University of New York Press, 2003.

Gives excellent context for the beginning of Italian American stereotypes due to immigration around the turn of the 20th century.

  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Penguin Classics, 2020.

Talks about power knowledge as it relates to sexuality. Also discusses deconstruction of heteronormativity as a means of initiating sexual discourse. Referenced by Butler.

  • Gardaphe, Fred L. From Wiseguys to Wise Men: the Gangster and Italian American Masculinities. Routledge, 2006.

Very informative piece on the evolution of the Italian gangster archetype. Prescient for examination of Palazzo and his Mafia affiliations.

  • Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. 1993. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Great discussion of how the foreign body is exploited through minstrelsy as a means of racial exploration. Can be easily extended to the study of Italian minstrelsy.

Works Cited