MY SEXTON BLAKE COLLECTION
by Mark Hodder
James Bond introduced me to Sexton Blake. Well, sort of. A few years ago, I decided to re-read Ian Fleming's 007 novels. That got me interested in British heroes and, inevitably, I ended up with a shelf-load of Bulldog Drummonds. The latter's buccaneering spirit got under my skin and I was soon trawling the secondhand bookshops for more inter-war English heroes whose sense of justice trampled all over the laws of the land. The Saint, obviously... but also Blackshirt, Nighthawk, Tiger Standish plus a seemingly endless legion of Edgar Wallace characters. And let's not forget Norman Conquest. The 'gentlemen bandits' interested me the most and a little research soon turned up that strange name: Sexton Blake.
Or, rather, my investigations led to Blake's enemies; those villainous but quite often oddly honourable fiends with weird names like Waldo the Wonder-Man (who WAS Norman Conquest!), Dr. Huxton Rymer and Zenith the Albino.
The first Blake story I ever read was THE WITCHES OF NOTTING HILL GATE by W. A. Ballinger (who I later discovered was actually W. Howard Baker). It's one of the 5th series SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY novels — and it's bloody awful. I mean seriously, excruciatingly, mind-numbingly terrible. "If that's what Sexton Blake is all about," I thought, "You can shove it."
A few weeks later, a complete run of 1919 UNION JACK story papers came up on Ebay. At the time, I didn't realise what an extraordinary find those issues were. I bid out of curiosity and my bid won. It wasn't even a particularly high bid. I guess I just got lucky. A few days later the package arrived and I found myself reading A DUEL TO THE DEATH, the first ever Zenith tale. From that moment, I was hooked.
Frequent visits to London's Charing Cross Road bookshops placed a few editions of the SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY onto the shelves but Ebay was the main source during those early days of collecting. There were some good moments... like the time I purchased three of the 'New Order' SBLs only to have the seller email me to ask whether I wanted to buy more. It turned out that he had nearly all the issues from the '56 to '63 period and wanted to offload them fast. I met him in central London and he handed over two bulging carrier bags for a mere £25. And among the haul was CARIBBEAN CRISIS, the only Blake story written by Michael Moorcock and one that's much sought after by his fans (and I definitely count myself among them) because it was his first published novel.
About a year after my fascination with Blake began, I got hold of a copy of the bibliography published by the Sexton Blake Circle. It came as a distinct shock. Up until then, I hadn't realised how many stories about the detective had been published (and the SBC bibliography is far from complete). Suddenly, my 'completist' instincts had to be severely reigned in; I had to face two facts: 1. I would never, ever, have a complete collection, and 2. Even if I spent every available waking moment reading, I still wouldn't make much of a dent in the saga.
But along with this reality check came a deeper and more serious interest in the Blake phenomenon. The fact that so much was written about the detective over such a long period of time intrigued me. I wanted to know why. In giving up any aspiration to be a completist, I also became a more serious collector.
When, finally, most of the post-1945 publications were present and correct on my shelves, I began concentrating on the earliest and the more obscure material. This means there's a rather large hole to fill in the 30s-40s period, which I guess I'll get around to eventually, but since that's widely acknowledged as being the time when the saga was in the doldrums, I have no sense of urgency about it.
I have a particular liking for the very earliest Blake stories, such as those by William Shaw Rae, and also for the start of the Golden Age; the period spanning the First World War era when all the major super-villains arrived on the scene to make life difficult for the detective. So for most of 2005, I focused my efforts on filling as many gaps as possible from the start of the saga up to 1920. By the end of the year the collection was looking rather healthy (unlike my bank balance!) and I began to broaden out into more general gap-filling. Unfortunately, the first couple of months of 2006 were financially difficult ones for me and I had to watch helplessly as two large Blake collections were sold on Ebay. Very painful!
There are certain items in my collection which stand out. A complete run of ANSWERS (the issues containing Blake stories, that is), bound in seven volumes and beautifully preserved, are particularly notable due to their extreme rarity. The tales are very short, each taking about ten minutes to read — and often seem more like vignettes — but there are 156 of them and they have a stylishness of their own which is very different from the longer Blake stories. Dating from 1908 to 1911, they offer some amusingly mundane-sounding titles: A BIT O CROCKERY; LOOK FOR THE LADY; THE ADVENTURE OF THE COFFEE POT and THE MYSTERY OF THE EMPTY NUT-SHELLS as well as some rather bizarre ones: KIRK, THE DAW; THE GREAT AUK'S EGG AFFAIR; THE LUCKY PIG CASE and BY PONK.
Published during the same period, the PENNY PICTORIAL stories are equally short and equally as rare. Again, a complete run graces my collection but, unfortunately, at some point in the past, someone was wise enough to collect the magazine but stupid enough to think it would be a good idea to cut out all the Blake pages and throw everything else away. So while it's true that I have all the stories, it's also true that they are just a big pile of loose pages. Each sheet has been trimmed so close to the text that binding them is out of the question, so I have to keep them safely filed away in a drawer.
The PENNY PICTORIAL stories offer an almost parallel-universe version of Sexton Blake. Instead of living in Baker Street, he lives in Aston Villa, Surbiton (and, later, Messenger Square). Instead of boy-assistant Tinker, he has man-assistant Bathurst. The first few tales offer an explanatory paragraph: the detective has been ordered to take a complete rest by his doctor and has, therefore, left his Baker Street consultancy in the hands of his assistant while he convalesces in more peaceful surroundings. This rest-break involves six-years' worth of adventures! (As these cases are all very short, perhaps the detective actually cleared the whole lot up in a matter of just a few months... but it took a lot longer to publish them all at a rate of one per week).
Finding Sexton Blake material in pristine condition is a target I have not set myself, though it's always good to find a perfectly preserved issue (my copy of the first ever Blake story looks like it was published yesterday rather than in 1893) but, ultimately, it's more important to me to have a readable copy of the story, whatever the state of the paper it's published on. Having said that, I'm meticulous about the way I store and preserve the collection.
Some of my early UNION JACKs would reduce me to tears if I was overly concerned about their condition. Again, it's one of those situations where someone in the past with the best of intentions has committed an act of butchery while putting them into practice. I think binding loose story papers into a set of volumes is a good idea... they are far less prone to damage and they're easier to store. But 'file copies' — binding them together without their covers — are an act of vandalism! My set of pre-1920 UNION JACK papers (with some omissions which I find particularly frustrating) are mostly bound in this fashion, so a lot of those beautifully drawn cover illustrations are absent. Enticingly, a lot of the issues use a small version of the following week's cover to advertise that issue... so in many cases I can, at least, see what's been removed.
Of the UNION JACKs that are missing, the PENNY POPULAR often helps to fill the gap. I own a complete run of the Blake-carrying POPULARs and every single issue is either a reprint or a rewrite of an earlier UNION JACK tale. However, this has to be treated carefully because the reprints are heavily edited and the rewrites are often rather thorough. Some of the UNION JACK stories are split up and turned into two, sometimes even three, adventures for the PENNY POPULAR. Blake and We-wee are transformed into Blake and Tinker; the Wych Street or Norfolk Street office gets relocated to Baker Street; horse and bicycle chases become car chases; and villainous East End Jews morph into villainous Kaiser-loving Germans. The POPULAR stories, then, can't be considered as replacements for missing UNION JACKS... and the original versions of the stories still have to be hunted.
Other highlights of the collection include all the Blake HALFPENNY MARVELs (personally I find those stories virtually unreadable), all eighteen installments of the ultra-rare serial GRIFF THE MAN-TRACKER (in which Sexton Blake is assisted by a bowler hat-wearing ape!), and bound copies of THE BOYS' FRIEND story paper which includes all the installments of SEXTON BLAKE ON THE RAILWAY except the first three (I own them as loose copies), the complete SEXTON BLAKE IN AMERICA serial, and all episodes of SEXTON BLAKE IN THE CONGO apart from the last one (Gaah!).
In the Bibliography Master List, I have given items in the collection a coloured background. This is to help me keep track of what I've got and what I haven't. Take a look and you'll see that there are an awful lot of gaps. Most of all, I want to get hold of more copies of DREADNOUGHT and THE BOYS' FRIEND, and to fill the gaps in the pre-1920 UNION JACKs (particularly 1913).
Collecting requires masses of patience, dedication, and financial sacrifices which often border on irresponsibility. But the rewards make it worthwhile. The satisfaction felt when a long sought after publication is delivered is enormous. But, more importantly, the gathering together of a substantial and significant body of work feels like a mission that justifies the time, effort and expense. The Sexton Blake stories have to be preserved and celebrated; they were part of the British landscape for nearly a century and their pages are imbued with our social history. The tales offer an important insight into the past... and, even better, they also provide escapism of the highest order!