Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1962) was a prolific author in various genres. Under the name Bruce Graeme he wrote a series of books chronicling the adventures of the gentleman-thief Blackshirt. The series was later continued by his son Roderic.
Blackshirt isn’t quite a gentleman a such. Like the most famous of all gentleman-thieves, Raffles, his class status is ambiguous. Blackshirt is actually Richard Verrell, a burglar who becomes a successful crime novelist. Verrell was an orphan who was raised by criminals. There is a suggestion that perhaps he really was born a gentleman although that might be wishful thinking on Verrell’s part.
The first book in the series, Blackshirt, was published in 1925. It is a series of linked short stories that had been previously published in the New Magazine. The stories are so closely linked that the book is perhaps better considered as an episodic novel rather than a short story collection.
Blackshirt got his name from the fact that when engaged in his burglarious activities he dresses entirely in black, his outfit completed by a black mask.
In the first story, The Lady of the ’Phone, Verrell is already well established in his respectable career as a crime writer but he is still continuing his parallel career as a burglar. He does not actually need the money any longer but he is unable to give up the thrill of burglary. He is however already plagued by a vague guilt about his double life.
This guilt will become more marked when he receives the first of a series of telephone calls from a mysterious lady. She knows a remarkable amount about him and she threatens to expose him if he does not carry out her instructions. These instructions are rather puzzling. At one moment she is ordering him to carry out a daring theft; at the next she is ordering him to return the jewels he has just stolen.
Verrell is initially annoyed but as the telephone calls continue he becomes fascinated, to the point that he suspects he is falling in love with this mysterious lady. Her motivations remain obscure. Is she trying to tempt him into plunging ever deeper into the world of crime, or does she intend to reform him?
Verrell is certainly an ambiguous hero. At times he becomes almost a genuine hero, even going so far as to risk his life to save a young woman trapped in a burning house. He feels a certain degree of guilt about his criminal activities but he does not intend to make atonement for his crimes by going to prison. He may however find a different way to atone for them.
Verrell finds that while stealing jewels can be dangerous enough returning to the scene of the crime to return his ill-gotten booty involves even greater perils.
The strange relationship between Blackshirt and The Lady of the ’Phone develops over the course of the eight stories in the first book. In the final story he will at last discover her identity, and discover her real motives for the puzzling and contradictory tasks she has set him. He will also discover his real destiny.
Graeme was a great fan of the Raffles stories which were an obvious influence, and one acknowledged by the author. Blackshirt was a Raffles for the 1920s. Blackshirt differs from Raffles in several important ways. Raffles has some moral scruples, but not many. Blackshirt on the other hand is, right from the start, torn between his need for adventure which tempts him to continue his criminal life and his desire to escape from crime and become in reality the respectable figure that he has been pretending to be.
As the Blackshirt series developed in the subsequent books Richard Verrell becomes a thief-turned-hero of the type that would become very popular a few years later with Leslie Charteris’s Saint stories and John Creasey’s books featuring The Baron. The first Blackshirt book sets up the character and it really is essential to read this one first before attempting any of the later books.
Blackshirt was an instant success and eventually racked up sales of around a million copies. By 1940 Bruce Graeme had written ten further very successful Blackshirt books. At this point he felt he’d taken the character as far as he could but rather than abandoning the series altogether he wrote a series of novels featuring Blackshirt’s son. In 1952 the author’s son Roderic took over the series, writing another twenty books with the final entry in the series being published as recently as 1969. Roderic Graeme’s books amounted to what today would be called a reboot of the series, making significant changes to the hero’s chronology and character.
Blackshirt, in his original form, is an intriguing variation of the gentleman-thief theme and the complex and ambiguous relationship (at times becoming almost a power struggle as well as an unconventional love story) between Richard Verrell and the Lady of the ’Phone adds considerable additional interest. Blackshirt is highly recommended to fans of British thrillers of the interwar period.