Average Jones: Solving Crimes via the Classifieds

A color illustration of three people, in 1890s apparel, looking at a newspaper,

“Average Jones” by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Cover art: George Reiter Brill, adapted from an 1896 magazine cover.

This is a guest post by Zach Klitzman, the editorial assistant in the Library’s Publishing Office.

Does a B-flat trombone player have anything to do with an assassination attempt? Why does a man only speak in Latin? Can the word “mercy” have a sinister meaning? And who stole a necklace of “blue fire” from a hotel room?

These puzzles and more are central to the latest Library of Congress Crime Classic, “Average Jones” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, a popular and prolific journalist and novelist in the early 20th century whose works were often turned into popular films.

First published in 1911, “Average Jones” is a collection of 10 short stories featuring Adrian Van Reypen Egerton Jones, known to his friends as “Average.” Jones is anything but average, though, as his brilliant mind allows him to become a successful “Ad-Visor,” an investigator of classified ads on behalf of clients to root out swindlers.

The stories have newspaper advertising at their heart, but they also have all the elements that mystery readers enjoy. Identifying possible crimes in ads, while placing his own ads to stop them, Jones uncovers plots to steal inheritances, defraud the public into viewing fake exhibits, and assassinate both a New York City mayoral candidate and New York state’s governor. While many stories take place in and around the Big Apple, adventures also include a foray into Mexico to rescue a possibly kidnapped wayward son; a sojourn to Baltimore to meet the Latin-speaking man; and an investigation into puzzling letters mailed from Connecticut. The final story serves as a romantic coda, when Jones falls in love with a potential victim of a crime.

Adams was born and educated in western New York, became an expert on the state’s history, and these stories no doubt drew on his career as a muckraking journalist, especially his investigations into dishonest advertising and patent medicine. Collier’s magazine published his 11-part exposé, “The Great American Fraud,” in 1905, and its successful denunciation of the patent medicine industry played a role in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Color illustration of a medieval battlefield, with modern faces added to soldiers and calvary

Samuel Hopkins Adams, front left, carrying a pen nib, along with other muckraking journalists in “The Crusaders.” Illustration: Carl Hassman. Prints & Photographs Division.

He was very well known for this work; in an illustration for Puck magazine in 1906, Carl Hassman depicted Adams front and center-left wielding a pen nib as a sword. His fellow muckrakers also appear, including Ida Tarbell, lifting a banner for McClure’s Magazine on horseback, and Lincoln Steffens, also on horseback, on the right.

Adams went on to write more than 50 books, including mysteries, presidential biographies, nonfiction and works for children. During the 1920s, writing under the pseudonym of Warner Fabian, he published half a dozen novels featuring Jazz Age characters and risqué plots. Several of these and other works were adapted into successful films.

Poster for "It Happened One Night," in deep blue, showing Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert embracing on a crescent moon

A poster for “It Happened One Night,” based on an Adams’ short story.

“The Wild Party” starred Clara Bow and “Sailors’ Wives” starred Mary Astor, both huge names in the 1920s. His short story “Night Bus” was adapted in 1934 to “It Happened One Night,” now regarded as one of Hollywood’s classic films. Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, directed by Frank Capra, it’s one of only three films to win all five major Academy Awards. It was inducted into the Library’s National Film Registry in 1993.

Other stories adapted into films included “The Gorgeous Hussy” (starring Joan Crawford) in 1936 and “The Harvey Girls” (starring Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury) in 1945. His final novel, “The Tenderloin,” was made into a Broadway musical in 1961, three years after Adams died at the age of 87.

Playbill poster for "Tenderloin," red and black text on a yellow background with an inset illustration of an 1890s party

Poster from 1961 for “Tenderloin,” a musical based on Adams’ novel. Prints & Photographs Division.

While the Average Jones stories were just a small part of Adams’ output, they displayed their creator’s socially conscious attitudes and dedication to muckraking, along with intriguing mysteries and a sharp sense of humor.

Launched in 2020, the Crime Classics series features some of the finest American crime writing from the 1860s to the 1960s. Drawn from the Library’s collections, each volume includes the original text, an introduction, author biography, notes, recommendations for further reading and suggested discussion questions from mystery expert Leslie S. Klinger. This special edition also features illustrations from the original edition of the book, drawn by M. Leone Bracker.

Crime Classics are published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in association with the Library of Congress. “Average Jones,” published on June 7, is available in softcover ($14.99) from booksellers worldwide, including the Library of Congress shop