THE ODYSSEY OF SEXTON BLAKE
by Michael Moorcock
"There was once a radio quiz in which a girl was asked to name a famous detective who lived in Baker Street. Her reply, 'Sexton Blake,' did not satisfy the B.B.C. quizmaster, though in thousands of homes it was doubtless accepted as the correct answer. Even when the quizmaster resorted to transparent prompting - 'No, I mean some detective or detectives who had homes in Baker Street,' the girl obstinately clung to her original reply."
Mr. E. S. Turner, in his book BOYS WILL BE BOYS* described the above incident in a chapter called, naturally enough, The Odyssey of Sexton Blake.
Referring to Miss Dorothy Sayers' reference to Blake as the nearest approach to a national folk-lore, Mr. Turner says: "If Sexton Blake is not a legendary hero of England ranking with King Arthur and Robin Hood, it is not the fault of his chroniclers, who at a modest estimate have turned out a total of 250,000,000 words about him; or of the film makers, whose efforts are not to be decried because they have rarely been seen in the West End of London.
"To refer to Blake as a 'legendary hero of England' is, in any case, parochial; his exploits have appeared in Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Dutch, Spanish and Afrikaans. In the unlikeliest corners of the globe tattered copies of Sexton Blake books are treasured.
"Behind the Japanese lines in the Second World War, Lieutenant-Colonel F. Spencer Chapman alleviated his boredom with a chance-found copy of 'The Murdered Mahout' (see The Jungle is Neutral)."
Discussing the early years of The Marvel - the first magazine to feature Blake - E. S. Turner defends allegations that Blake is the "poor man's Sherlock Holmes": "It is noteworthy that the Sexton Blake who appeared in the sixth number of Alfred Harmsworth's Marvel, published in 1893, in a story called 'The Missing Millionaire,' had almost none of the characteristics of Holmes.
"The illustrations showed a well built, not particularly distinguished Victorian gentleman with a high crowned bowler, carrying a heavy walking-stick. Nor did he work in Baker Street but in New Inn Chambers."
Later stories described Blake as working in Wych Street, off the Strand, and it was much later that Blake moved to Baker Street where, of course, he lived and worked until the removal of his offices to fashionable Berkeley Square.
"Even at this early stage," Mr. Turner continues, "there was a woman in Blake's life. Not for the last time the detective was to feel tenderly towards a young woman who was destined to be kidnapped and not restored till the last chapter. The style of Hal Meredeth's (first Blake chronicler) Blake is worth quoting: 'I never believed until now,' reflected Sexton Blake, 'that I should ever seriously fall in love and especially at first sight; but I must confess that if I could succeed in winning the affections of Lillie Ray I should account myself the luckiest of earthly mortals ...' "
Those few readers who have decried the modern Sexton Blake's encounters with the fair sex would do well to take note that the above incident occurred before the turn of the century and readers were assured that Miss Ray had:
"Given him (Blake) more than half a promise that she will some day reward his devotion to her in the way he most desires."
It is likely, as we learned in later stories, that Blake subsequently decided to put his passion for fighting crime first and other passions second. Blake remained a bachelor.
The detective's exploits proved so popular with readers of The Marvel ("Exceeding the Editor's most sanguine expectations") that he soon became a regular hero in other papers.
"Then in Number 25," Mr. Turner tells us, "came the announcement that 'Sexton Blake has been secured by the Union Jack,' due to make its debut in April, 1894. It was this pink-jacketed newcomer, then also a halfpenny paper, which was to make Sexton Blake famous. Not that it held any exclusive title to him, for he has appeared in Boys' Friend, Boys' Herald, Penny Popular, The Jester, and, of course, the Sexton Blake Library, which started as a separate institution during the First World War."
Sexton Blake's adventures were being chronicled for a wide audience extending over a vast number of periodicals for adults and also their offspring.
What might be called Sexton Blake's Statement of Principles appeared early, in The Marvel, and, as readers know, has remained consistent:
"We do not interfere in disputes between man and wife, nor do we pursue defaulting clerks, but if there is wrong to be righted, an evil to be redressed, or a rescue of the weak and suffering from the powerful, our hearty assistance can be readily obtained. We do nothing for hire here; we would cheerfully undertake to perform without fee or reward. But when our clients are wealthy we are not so unjust to ourselves as to make a gratuitous offer of our services."
When did Edward Carter, better known as Tinker, appear on the scene? Mr. Turner says:
"Tinker did not arrive until 1904." We learn that "Tinker" survived the great purge of 1904 when Blake — heavily overworked — dismissed all the other members of his staff and retired to the country under the name of Henry Park. "Tinker always would remain. They were part and parcel of each other's lives."
Tinker at this time was refusing bribes of £5 to disclose the detective's private address to importunate clients. Then came the day when Henry Park was falsely accused of theft, and Blake had the stimulating experience of being engaged to track himself down. (He relished that kind of operation. Once he wagered £500 with the police that he would disappear in London and that they would not find him. He joined the police who were hunting him.) The unusual case of Henry Park convinced Blake that he would never be able to give up the game of detection. "I shall remain in harness till the end," he said.
Blake, who has successfully outlasted all other competitors, and is still going strong, looks like "remaining in harness" for a long time, yet.
"There was another addition to the household," Mr. Turner informs us, " — the bloodhound Pedro. He was sent to Blake with £100 by a well-wisher called Mr. Nemo. And then came the Grey Panther." The Grey Panther was the predecessor of Blake's grey Continental Bentley.
Some of Blake's pre-war opponents are mentioned. Among others who appeared regularly in the Union Jack were George Marsden Plummer, the Scotland Yard renegade, and his beautiful accomplice Vali Mata Vali; Huxton Rymer and his equally beautiful female accomplices Mary Trent and Yvonne; Leon Kestrel, the Master Mummer, whose real features no one knew; Waldo the Wonder man... and many others. Followers of the Berkeley Gray "Norman Conquest" stories will be interested to note that Waldo was the forerunner of Conquest and many of the old Blake/Waldo yarns have recently been published as Norman Conquest books.
A number of years after Blake's first encounter with the fair sex we read in an issue of the Union Jack:
"I want some happiness in life. Am I ugly? Am I repulsive? Am I lacking in intelligence? Other men have not found me so."
"Nor have I," said Blake in strained tones, "You are none of those things. It is necessary for me to tell you that you are very lovely and very, very desirable."
"Then why won't you..."
"No. If I admit any of the softness of what you suggest into my life it means my career would suffer. I have always put it first and must continue to do so. I am sorry, but I can't."
The girl was Roxane, a girl very susceptible to Blake's manly charm — and Blake, subsequently, proved himself equally susceptible to hers. For a short time...
Contrary to the statements of those who say that it is only of late that Blake has been involved with women, it seems that he has had his share of dalliances over the years — and at the same time has remained true to his principles throughout his career.
To return to Mr. Turner:
"In the final issues of Union Jack, just before it became Detective Weekly (in 1933) appeared a Blake serial — 'The Next Move' — instalments of which were written by four authors in turn-Robert Murray, Anthony Skene, G. H. Teed and Gwyn Evans. The editor was the 'referee'. Readers were invited to give their opinions of this experiment. Some may have found literary exercises of the kind disillusioning for there have always been a minority who believe Blake to be a real person and who, from time to time, pluck up the courage to write to him, congratulating him or seeking his aid. Women have even applied for the job of housekeeper on Mrs. Bardell's retirement.
"The Detective Weekly proved to be modelled on the more spacious lines of the Thriller... which had published in its first number a full-length story of J. G. Reeder by Edgar Wallace. Some of the Sexton Blake 'regulars' had also been written for the Thriller; it had carried, too, 'Saint' stories by Leslie Charteris and tales by Sydney Horler.
"The nature of the Blake build-up was not calculated to disillusion those who believed in a real-life Sexton Blake. Readers would discover, it was stated, that 'Sexton Blake' is not merely a name or a puppet figure of fiction. From our stories, phase by phase, will emerge the real and rounded portrait of a living man — and one who has already won and held the attention of a world-wide audience. Sexton Blake is not a detective — he is the detective"
In 1940, the Detective Weekly was forced out of circulation due to the absence of newsprint. But Sexton Blake Library continued, valiantly, to chronicle the adventures of the detective.
BLAKE'S NEW ORDER
By 1956 came the New Order Sexton Blake Library. Mr. Turner has this to say about the "change-over":
"If any readers thought that Blake was growing old or losing his grip, they were disabused when, in the Summer of 1956, they started to read 'Frightened Lady,' by W. Howard Baker. In this already historic story, they learned that pressure of work had obliged Blake to open offices in the West End - in Berkeley Square. In his outer office sat a silken-eyelashed young brunette whose full black skirt made a whispering noise as she rose...
According to Mr. Baker, Blake intended to widen greatly the scope of his activities... Hardly had the startled readers adjusted themselves to the idea of a pretty girl in a whispering skirt on Blake's payroll when they found him signing on as secretary the frightened lady of the story, Miss Paula Dane... Paula Dane, who is not frightened any more, is now part of the Blake legend. She is a tall, slim honey-blonde... Before Blake rescued her from her oppressors, she had been trying to write advertising copy but had not really relished persuading people to buy what they did not need with money they had not earned."
Next, Mr. Turner introduces Marion Lang who "has not yet got used to the idea of sudden death..." According to Paula, Marion is "a wonderful girl," but "spends most of her time thinking of two subjects and both of them are men..." Photographs of Paula and Marion have appeared in the Sexton Blake Library and very eye-distracting young women they are. No photograph has yet been published of Miss Pringle, described as "the organisation's middle-aged, plainly-dressed typist"... there may be more in Miss Pringle than appears on the surface."
Finally, Mr. Turner asks a question:
"Will Sexton Blake continue to run true to form against this new unmonastic background? Is bright and adoring feminine company just what he needed to stimulate him to fresh heights? Only the next sixty years will show."
Because the "New Order" swept away some of the traditions which were formed during the Twenties and Thirties, this does not mean that new writers have not in the last few years added extensively to the Saga.
Apart from the additions to Blake's staff, mentioned by Mr. Turner above, there have been many fresh characters turning up, not least among them the boisterous journalist Arthur "Splash" Kirby. Splash, who conducts the Around and About column of the Daily Post, has sometimes proved extremely useful on Blake's cases. Splash, himself, usually provides light relief in the stories in which he features. The way in which he provides this relief, of course, is not always acceptable to the young ladies of Blake's entourage at whom he makes determined passes from time to time...
The enigmatic Eustace Craille has proved most popular with readers, as have the stories which have featured both Craille and Blake in the service of this country and others. Craille, in his capacity as head of a top secret Intelligence Service, has often had to call Blake away from his civil work to take part in cases connected with the security of the free world.
Blake's old friend, Chief Det. Inspector Coutts, still represents the official forces of law and order in more stories than his new colleagues, but both Dep. Commander Arthur Grimwald and the fastidious fop, Det. Superintendent Theodore Dukelow, have added, in their own ways, to the Blake saga.
As for villains — who could be more villainous than that dreadful family consisting of Dr. Carl Magnus and the sisters Agnes and Dorothy who turn up so frequently in the novels of popular Jack Trevor Story?
The S.B.L. stories of the past five years have added, more than any others in the same period of time, to the total lore of the Sexton Blake Saga. In The Angry Night by W. Howard Baker, we were introduced to Sexton Blake's father, old Dr. Barclay Blake, and also discovered new information regarding Blake's brother Nigel. In Dead Man's Destiny by Martin Thomas, Tinker's boyhood was chronicled in detail and the mystery surrounding his early life and antecedents, a mystery which had existed for over half-a-century, was cleared up. Soon, we learn, Jack Trevor Story will be contributing a novel which will add even further to the Saga when he describes a case which has its roots in Blake's past, when he was at University.*
Although Blake moved his offices to Berkeley Square a few years ago, he and Tinker still live at Baker Street, in separate flats, and Mrs. Bardell still "does" for them, although she no longer "lives in."
Little has changed - much has been added. Most of the old ménage are still around. Another member of the animal world has taken over from Pedro the bloodhound, who is now in honourable retirement on a farm in Berkshire. This is the aristocratic Millie, the sealpoint Siamese cat who has appeared in many stories. Whereas Pedro had a scent for the wrongdoer, Millie has a nose for the odd bottle of sweet sherry. Cats, it seems, haven't the same moral sense as dogs. Millie spends her time between Blake's Baker Street penthouse and the Berkeley Square offices.
Since 1893, Sexton Blake has been solving problems, righting wrongs and generally making himself useful on the side of Justice. There is little to suggest that, in future, he will not continue in his role and, also, as he said in 1894, continue to: "Right the wrongs, redress the evils and rescue the weak from the powerful."
Others may fall by the wayside — but Sexton Blake goes on. Stay with him — it should prove interesting.
* BOYS WILL BE BOYS by E. S. Turner. Published by Michael Joseph. 18/-.
** DANGER'S CHILD by Jack Trevor Story (November 1961 SBL4 #487)