by Derek Smith

  • This article first appeared in THE COLLECTORS' DIGEST Vol. 26 issue 303, March 1972. Reproduced with permission.
Miss Death

In 1929 Sexton Blake did brief but conclusive battle with one of the strangest opponents of his long career: the mysterious Miss Death. Also known as our Lady of the Skull, from her disconcerting practice of appearing to associates and victims in the guise of a grinning death’s-head surmounting a scarlet cloak, she ruled a desperate band of criminals by the sceptre of fear, and held court in a darkened room like a charnel-house. In the centre of the room was a long, oblong-shaped box that had a horrifying familiar shape ... round it were grouped six empty chairs ... "That is only my coffin ... I will be occupying it very shortly — for ever!" Beneath the hideous mask was the face of a young and attractive girl named Diana Temple. The delicate pallor of her complexion had the faint creaminess of old ivory, enhanced by the dark curling lashes that veiled eyes of deep cornflower blue. Her nose was straight and delicately chiselled, and her red lips soft and alluring.

But the counterfeit skull was grimly prophetic: the twenty-two year old Yorkshire lass had been given less than six months to live. The sentence had been delivered by the greatest heart specialist in Harley Street, and from that verdict there was no appeal.

From that moment Diana Temple was no more: and in her place was born the mysterious Miss Death. Utterly unselfish, yet utterly unscrupulous, fearless, and quixotically foolish, she was determined to devote the rest of her life to crime. Those last few months were to be allotted to raising no less than a million pounds for the poor and unfortunate of her native county of Yorkshire. She would force the war profiteers, the unscrupulous financiers and shady company promoters to disgorge their ill-gotten gains for the benefit of hospitals and sanatoria in the Industrial North.

She was well provided with the sinews of war. Another strange turn of fortune’s wheel had placed in her hands the Book of Death, a blackmailer’s compendium of shady secrets and hidden crimes. Never since the infamous book of the 47,000 which had nearly wrecked an Empire during the war, had so many disgraceful and sensational secrets been gathered and tabulated together in one volume. Thus she held sway over a dozen of the cleverest and most desperate crooks in Europe. The contract was simple; they would serve her till she died, for refusal meant prison or the hangman’s rope.

Their first victim was Sir Julius Schonberg, a Leeds manufacturer and sweet shop proprietor who had made a fortune from profiteering in war material and shoddy products. An ingenious campaign forced from him a donation of £20,000 to the local infirmary, but Sexton Blake's intervention resulted in the capture of three gang members.

Thereupon Miss Death made the biggest tactical blunder of her short career, she issued a challenge to Sexton Blake. Far from warning him off, the ultimatum merely reinforced the detective’s resolve to see the case through to the bitter end. It was to be a grim struggle, with Death the only final victor.

But the next round, oddly enough, was a much more light-hearted affair. It revolved around an ingenious confidence trick to extort sixty thousand pounds from the Sheffield steel kings — allegedly to suppress a non-existent hair-remover that would make razors redundant. Blake wrecked the scheme in the nick of time, and Miss Death reproached him bitterly for an empty victory: "You have spoiled a great project, deprived thousands of poor people of benefits I would have showered on them ... for this you will surely pay."

Sinister doings marked the next adventure in Bradford. Miss Death was in temporary and uneasy alliance with Sir Hector Jarman — the maddest titled surgeon since Oppenheim’s infamous Sir Joseph Londe. Sir Hector’s own "Terrible Hobby" was no less than the projected destruction of "Woolopolis" itself — Bradford — or the city of Baal, as Jarman preferred to regard it. Miss Death’s target was a decidedly unpleasant wool manufacturer named Lord Fairleigh (nee Bill Craske) who was doing his best to steal the secret of a new wool cleaning process from a young inventor named Jem Stapler. Everybody’s schemes fell short of fruition with Sir Hector’s final descent into madness. His next to last act in a night of mania was to release a dragon lizard of nightmarish size. A great scaly thing, fully fifteen feet long and jet black in colour, with a nightmare head, its little pig-like eyes gleamed angrily. A huge yellow, double-forked tongue worked continually between its hideous foam-flecked jaws. Fortunately, the ghastly creature was no match for Blake’s bullets, and Sir Hector himself came to a messy end when he fell into a pool which he had thoughtlessly stocked with deadly piranha fish. Lord Fairleigh had died when Jarman ran amok, so Miss Death was unable to cash the cheque she had extorted, and she sent another reproachful letter to Blake, ending: "Morturi te salutat!"

Death's grisly clutch was almost upon her, but there was time for one last adventure. It centred about the London and Yorkshire Railway, bedevilled as it was by Hogan Flint, a newspaper magnate with a vested interest in road transport, and by a malignant ‘Phantom of the Footplate’ which had inexplicably claimed the lives of two successive drivers in the cab of the Black Prince, Britain’s fastest locomotive. Miss Death knew that Flint had hatched a plot to wreck the train on its southward run by tampering with the points, and determined to extort one hundred thousand pounds as the price of her silence. Despite her careless contempt for death and its terrors Diana Temple would not allow scores of innocent passengers to be trapped in a rail disaster. Accordingly, she placed a warning in the cab of the Black Prince and that brave gesture was her last. Pursued by Sexton Blake she eventually died in his arms:

Blake gazed down compassionately at her pale, wan face. She was very near the end, he saw, and his heart ached for the strange wilful girl whose life had been so tragically fated to disaster. Suddenly she smiled, and her whole face was irradiated, then, very softly she murmured: "Goodbye Blake, Death wins," and was suddenly very still.

So passed one of the strangest — and certainly the most tragic — of Blake's many adversaries. A plain stone slab in a simple village churchyard in the Yorkshire dales she loved so well marks the resting place of Diana Temple. Once a year there is placed a tribute of flowers on her grave, bearing a card with the simple inscription: In memory of a brave and chivalrous soul, from S. B.

© Derek Smith

Miss Death