THE NADIR OF ZENITH, OR, THE LAST OF THE MASTER CRIMINALS
by Derek Hinrich
"As the 1930s drew towards their close, the storm clouds banked ever more threateningly on the European horizon and the close of play scores on the nine o'clock news became an increasingly inadequate anodyne to the tramp of the Nuremberg rallies." Thus begins the valediction to the period immediately before the Second World War in Altham and Swanton's History of Cricket. And with the advent of the War there also came a general passing from the scene of Sexton Blake's most persistent enemies as if they, too, bowed themselves out in the presence of a greater evil.
This is perhaps fanciful, but certainly the great detective suffered from the deaths in 1937-39 of three of his most distinguished chroniclers (Gwyn Evans, Robert Murray Graydon and G H Teed), and with them went most of his most memorable adversaries. Of course, by then George Marsden Plummer, for instance, would have been getting on a bit — 64 in 1939, I believe — and Dr Huxton Rymer must have been about the same vintage. With the death of G H Teed they both disappeared, except in DETECTIVE WEEKLY reprints of old stories in its last days (Rymer was Teed's own creation but Plummer had had three or four other authors since E. Sempill created him in 1908 and I wonder why no-one carried him on), though two pale ghosts bearing their names surfaced insubstantially and briefly in the "New Look" Blake twenty years later.
By the end of 1940 all the great master-criminals were gone at last with but two exceptions. In 1944 Leon Kestrel made his final appearance in The Case Of The Biscay Pirate (SBL3 65), characteristically evading capture at the last moment. Presumably he retired thereafter to enjoy his ill-gotten gains, for he did not return in the post-war world — but by then he, too, must have been getting on a bit, though he was still spritely enough to drop Blake a line sometime in the '60s.
The year before saw the last of Zenith the Albino in one of Anthony Skene's final contributions to the Blake cycle, The Affair Of The Bronze Basilisk (SBL3 49). After the outbreak of war in 1939 Skene was presumaby too busy in his other persona as G N Phillips, a quantity surveyor in the Ministry of Public Building and Works, to write more than four new Blake novels between 1939 and 1947.
The plot of The Bronze Basilisk owes more than something to The Maltese Falcon I think for it, too, is concerned with a struggle between various dubious characters, Sexton Blake intervening, for the possession of a gem-laden statuette. One of the interested parties is Monsieur Zenith.
But this is no ordinary criminal enterprise by the Albino. He wishes to acquire the basilisk to use it to raise funds for his war effort. He has been abroad in Yugoslavia fighting the Germans with the guerrillas — presumably with General Draza Mihailovic's Chetniks rather than Tito's communist Partisans since, in London, he is accredited with diplomatic immunity by the Yugoslav Government in exile and provided by them with a car, petrol and rations. This does make it all rather difficult for Blake!
Zenith still habitually dresses in white tie and tails, even odder than previously this, in the fourth year of the War. Did the Albino lead his war-band in this fashion across the Balkan hills?
Despite the Albino's diplomatic immunity, Sexton Blake finally catches up with him amid the ruins of a bomb-shattered house teetering on the edge of a cliff. He wrests the basilisk from him in their final confrontation and in a climactic fight reminiscent of Holmes' Reichenbach encounter sends Zenith reeling, just as the house and the cliff thunderously collapse. Afterwards, no trace of the Albino can be found and yet... But in the event there was no "and yet".
So they passed, the master criminals. Sherlock Holmes in his 23 years of practice encountered many desperate villains but only one master criminal, the incomparable Professor Moriarty. Sexton Blake in his Golden Age met any number of them, so-called clearly to distinguish them from ordinary criminals. I sometimes wonder if in graduating to that status they acquired diplomas with framed certificates to hang upon the wall, like any honest tradesman. These could only have been issued, of course, by the Criminals Confederation, but if so could one trust their reliability?
© Derek Hinrich