Monday, March 18, 2013

Sexton Blake revisited

Sexton Blake is sometimes seen as a Sherlock Holmes rip-off but in fact the similarities between the two fictional detectives were purely superficial. Right from the start the Sexton Blake stories were pitched at a younger audience, the readers of the many boys’ magazines that flourished from the late 19th century up until about the middle of the 20th century. And the Sexton Blake stories, at least in the character’s heyday, were more a combination of crime and adventure stories rather than straight detective stories.

The Sexton Blake stories can be seen as a kind of down-market juvenile version of the thrillers of Edgar Wallace and Sapper.

There were literally hundreds of Sexton Blake stories, written by a variety of authors. The very first of these stories was The Missing Millionaire, published in 1893. It was written by Harry Blyth, an author who was foolish enough to sign away all rights to the character when he sold the story to the boys’ magazine The Halfpenny Marvel. Blyth went on to write several more stories featuring the character before his death in 1898.

The Missing Millionaire is not a particularly good story. The plot rambles about all over the place without ever really going anywhere, the style is on the dull side and the character of Sexton Blake had not yet been fully established.

The Missing Millionaire is included in David Stuart Davies’ mammoth anthology Vintage Mystery and Detective Stories.

Davies also edited Wordsworth Editions’ Sexton Blake collection, The Casebook of Sexton Blake. Davies had a multitude of stories to choose from and he’s come up with seven highly entertaining stories. The stories were mostly novella-length, and that’s the case with the seven selections in this volume. Davies’ own preference is for the more outrageous Sexton Blake tales, with an emphasis on diabolical criminal masterminds and sinister conspiracies, and with delightfully far-fetched plots.

I read several of these stories a few years back and I’ve now returned to the scene of the crime as it were to read the remaining stories.

A Case of Arson was written in 1917 by Robert Murray Graydon (whose father William Murray Graydon also wrote Blake stories). This story features Dirk Dolland, known as The Bat, a glamorous super-criminal but one who abides by the rules of fair play. He loves crime but he abhors violence. Crime is a hobby for this rich young man and with the assistance of three other arch-villains he is about to pull off the greatest coup of his career. At a gambling hell in London he learns that an American millionaire is trying to buy a famous painting and has offered no less than a hundred thousand pounds for it. A hundred thousand pounds makes a tempting target for any ambitious burglar but merely to steal it would not be a sufficient challenge for The Bat. His nimble mind has conceived an incredibly audacious plan whereby his gang stands to net three times that amount.

The plan is complex and brilliant, but The Bat will be going up against the great detective Sexton Blake, a man whose genius matches his own.

The Black Eagle was written by G. H. Teed in 1923 and it’s another fine story. Twenty years earlier an English artist had been sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island for a murder committed in Paris. The murder took place among a set of wild young painters and their models. Now the man is free, and in London. And he’s looking for revenge. He believes that his so-called friends in those wild days framed him for the murder and he intends to kill them all, one by one. Only one man can stop him, and that man is Sexton Blake.

To appeal to their young readership base Sexton Blake had, some years earlier, been given a young assistant named Tinker. He’s a sort of Robin to Sexton Blake’s Batman. Blake also has his faithful bloodhound Pedro to help him out.

While they may have been aimed mostly at a juvenile readership the best Sexton Blake stories are both clever and entertaining. Stories like A Case of Arson and The Black Eagle are fast-paced and action-filled and generally great fun.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a big Blake fan. This character should really come back. This is a good anthology and I love the super-villian thing.