Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Mark Hodder on Sexton Blake

I came to Sexton Blake from two directions. The first was via my teenage enthusiasm for the works of Michael Moorcock, whose debut novel CARIBBEAN CRISIS (which, back then, I'd never read) was a Sexton Blake yarn and whose famous Elric character was inspired by one of Blake's arch enemies, Zenith the Albino.

The second was through a cheerfully British breed of literary hero, which had its genesis with Raffles and reached an apotheosis with Bulldog Drummond, The Saint, The Toff, The Baron, and Norman Conquest before then being supplanted by the rather less jovial James Bond and his imitators.

I loved those yarns and was intrigued when I discovered that Berkeley Gray, the author of the Conquest novels, was actually Edwy Searles Brooks, who was apparently also responsible for a great many Sexton Blake tales. Norman Conquest, I learned, grew out of his Blake character, Waldo the Wonder-man.
Who, though, was this oft-mentioned Sexton Blake?

I found out when I discovered a battered paperback in a used bookstore: THE WITCHES OF NOTTING HILLby W. A. Ballinger, The Sexton Blake Library 5th series, 1965.

Fifth series! How many series had there been, I wondered? (The answer is six, though it’s debatable).

I almost didn't bother to find out. The novel was terrible. Blake was an uninspired Bond knock-off, the plot was risible, and the female characters were treated as little more than "totty."

My curiosity would have ended there were it not for the advent of the internet—and eBay—on which, one day, I saw advertised a set of UNION JACK magazines, "Sexton Blake's Own Story Paper," dating from 1919. I bid and, remarkably, no one else did, so I got them for next to nothing.

And … wow!

The yarns I discovered in that stack of crumbling, browned old issues were amazing. The Blake of the period was quite different to his later incarnation—a sort of Indiana Jones with the trappings of Sherlock Holmes and a dash of Batman. He, his teenage sidekick, Tinker, and their bloodhound, Pedro, ranged the world, spy-catching and solving locked-room mysteries; tussling with eccentric super-villains and trekking into deepest Africa; they discovered lost cities and caught the Spanish flu; exposed impersonators and lost their memories; threw themselves into punch-ups and somehow survived ferocious gunfights. All this, and much, much more in a single year's-worth of issues!

Blake had been published continuously from 1893 through to 1978, sometimes in multiple magazines per week, written by approximately 200 authors. During the '40s and '50s, his adventures were translated into many different languages, including Gujarati, and were particularly popular in Spain and South America. In general, the stories were aimed at a young adult market, though in the later years they split into a juvenile branch—picture strips and simplistic two-page stories in KNOCKOUT COMIC, for example—and a more adult branch, beginning when W. Howard Baker took over editorship of the Sexton Blake Library in 1956 and “Bondified” Blake. In addition, there were Blake theatre productions, many silent movies, a handful of talkies, a long-player record, two radio serials, a very popular TV series on ITV, and—sounding the death knell—a far less successful show on the BBC. 

All of this sent me on a collecting odyssey that continues to this day. From the outset, I was intrigued by the way Blake basically remained the same while the world transformed around him. While it's true that he was broody Holmes-ish at times and a bit brutal Bond-ish in the later years, essentially, he was always the ultimate, well-mannered, unemotional, stiff upper lipped Britisher; a mouthpiece for the empire when it still was one; a character whose popularity very slowly dwindled as the empire very slowly faded. For modern sensibilities, his unwavering faith in British superiority is sometimes heart-warming, sometimes risible, and sometimes downright racist—it depends on the writer—but it never fails to offer a solid slice of social history. Blake threw himself into all the huge upheavals of the twentieth century. New technologies frequently featured as centrepieces to his adventures: Radio! Telephones! Cars ("Events move pretty rapidly when one is travelling at thirty miles an hour!")! Flight! Television! And during his twilight years: The atom bomb! Computers! 
He also explored all the new industries that arose amid the changes, working undercover in a myriad of different roles, all of them giving his young readers an insight into what were, essentially, new job opportunities. 

I've never encountered history—not in fiction nor in textbooks—that has felt so palpable as it does in the Blake tales. That’s especially true of the war years, where all the attitudes and hardships jump off the pages.

This, though, is just a bonus. The real attraction is that the stories, aside from the occasional and inevitable stinker, are an immense amount of fun. They rattle along at a furious pace, packed with perils and hair-raising escapades, often hilariously implausible but frequently amazingly inventive.

Though every period has something to offer, the 1920s were undoubtedly Sexton Blake's "golden years." With Eric Parker providing outstanding artwork for its covers, and a band of particularly talented writers at work on the stories, the UNION JACK story paper really hit its stride. This was the era of the super-crook, when Blake and Tinker battled what were, essentially, prototype Batman villains, every bit as wild and bizarre as the Joker, Penguin and Riddler but predating them by twenty years and very easily outshining them. Zenith! Doctor Huxton Rymer! The Black Trinity! The Criminals’ Confederation! George Marsden Plummer! The Owl! Miss Death! The Master Mummer! Gunga Dass! The nefarious ne’er-do-wells make for a very long list, yet each of them is unique and memorable.

I've been collecting, reading, and writing about Sexton Blake for more than two decades now and I never grow tired of it. With so much material, there's always something new to discover!

Long live Blake!

Sexton Blake and the Great War Edited by Mark Hodder (Published by Rebellion Publishing) Out 16 April 2020
 Britain and Germany are at war and Sexton Blake is in the thick of it. As the battle for the Western Front rages, adventuring detective Sexton Blake pits his intellect and physical prowess against the machinations of the Kaiser. A band of intrepid allies join Blake to take on the forces of evil in three classic stories, collected here for the first time.  From uncovering secret German naval bases to dangling from Zeppelins, fighting atop moving trains and escaping firing squads, Blake moves through war-torn Europe solving mysteries and fighting against tyranny.  Join him as he enters a war of secrets, soldiers and spies…

The Shots review can be found here.

Sexton Blake Versus the Master Crooks  (Published 25 June 2020
Sexton Blake ‘s Allies (Published 6 August 2020)
Sexton Blake on the Home Front (Published 6 October 2020)
Sexton Blake’s New Order (Published 10 December 2020)

No comments: