SEXTON BLAKE'S PARTNER
by Derek Hinrich
"So my wealthy client has come at last, thanks to the influence of my friend Gervaise of Paris. I wonder what kind of mission it is he has in mind to bring me in such high rewards? Gervaise says it may keep me busy for a year or two."
Thus Mr. Sexton Blake muses when we first meet him, on the threshold of his illustrious career, in his first recorded case as he awaits his client, Mr. Frank Ellaby, shortly to become The Missing Millionaire of the title.
Sexton Blake, at this time (1893) we are told:
"belonged to the new order of detectives. He possessed a highly-cultivated mind which helped to support his active courage. His refined clean-shaven face readily lent itself to any disguise, and his mobile features assisted to clinch any facial illusion he desired to produce."
He had apparently been active in his chosen profession for some little time as he already had an office in New Inn Chambers, in Wych Street off the Strand, with sufficient business to justify the employment of a clerk. He also had some knowledge, it becomes apparent as the case develops, of the upper echelons of the London underworld and in particular of the activities of "The Red Lights of London", a sort of proto-Criminals' Confederation (whose leading light, Leon Polti, a youthful mastermind and occasional transvestite, might in later days, have made a memorable serial villain).
Blake is eagerly awaiting Mr. Ellaby and has high hopes of the commission. Perhaps business is not too good at that moment. His windows we are told are grimy: could he be behind with his rent? Certainly, two years or so of full-time employment must have seemed a godsend. At any rate his gratitude to Gervaise is manifest and when the Frenchman comes to England to help him, there is perhaps something of the master and pupil in their relationship.
The case ends triumphantly for Blake and Gervaise. Mr. Ellaby is rescued from the clutches of "The Red Lights of London", who are destroyed, and all the other manifold complications are resolved by the story's end, and Gervaise, forsaking Paris, becomes Blake's partner in London.
Sexton Blake's next case, The Mystery of 'The Black Grange', finds the partners each separately engaged by clients who are unknown to one another, upon what turn out to be different aspects of the same investigation (something not unknown in private eye novels even now). This affair is a sequel to The Missing Millionaire as once again Mr. Ellaby is the subject of a murderous assault, and many other characters reappear.
Once again our heroes are triumphant and, amongst other desperados, they make an end of a gang known as "The Assassins of The Seine" which has terrorised the French capital for some time past. Gervaise plays a somewhat larger role in this case. Indeed at one moment he completely baffles Blake when he appears before him in disguise in the offices of the Paris Prefecture of Police. This is noteworthy perhaps because Sexton Blake's own skill in disguise is not exhibited in either of these stories.
Nor is it in his third adventure, A Golden Ghost; or, Tracked By A Phantom. Gervaise neither appears nor is mentioned in this tale which is, however, a farrago of nonsense and the weakest of these earliest chronicles. It is heavily indebted to The Moonstone and concerns the theft of a gem from an Eastern idol on behalf of an (unidentified) "British prince" and the attempted vengeance of the idol's devotees — amongst much else.
None of these stories, which — despite their relatively short length — contain as much incident as any three-decker "Sensation Novel" by Miss Braddon or Mrs Henry Wood, and in which the long arm of coincidence is not merely tweaked but repeatedly tugged out of its socket, really give either Sexton Blake or Jules Gervaise any opportunity to exhibit much in the way of detective skills beyond boundless activity.
Blake does have rather more work in Sexton Blake Detective, his first adventure in THE UNION JACK, and does for the first time adopt a disguise, but once again there is no mention of his partner and one wonders what role Jules Gervaise plays in the concern of Blake and Gervaise Ltd (presumably he has accepted the position of junior partner as he is a foreigner).
Seven weeks later, however, the partnership is seen again in action together in THE HALFPENNY MARVEL in Sexton Blake's Peril in which they foil the schemes of a sinister trio of international criminals, known as "The Terrible Three", who having made Italy too hot for them, have commenced operations in London. Here Gervaise, who has encountered the gang in Rome, counsels caution and advises Blake not to proceed in the matter as the gang is too dangerous. When Blake disregards his advice Gervaise washes his hands of the matter though when Blake is in the peril of the title he decides, like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, that he must do something about it (though fortunately for us, of course, Blake is not murdered unlike Spade's partner, Archer).
In this story and in the last of the original six adventures of Sexton Blake by Harry Blyth, Sexton Blake's Triumph (from which Gervaise is again absent) there is more of what might be called detective work, though the coincidences still come thick and fast. Blake readily assumes another disguise as he tells a client that he has a wig and a beard available (his wardrobe is perhaps limited as yet), even though the villains see through it at once. He is, however, prepared for every eventuality. When one subtle villain attempts his murder by the scratch of a talonous fingernail dipped in an alkaloid poison, Blake is able to produce a stick of lunar caustic from his pocket-case with which to cauterise the wound. He does not, though, carry firearms regularly as in his hey-day.
The character of the partners is now more fully delineated than in their earlier adventures though we have no further physical description of Blake than that at the outset of his first recorded case. Beside this we have his portrait, though in other illustrations he perhaps appears a trifle more portly than we have become accustomed to in later years, though this might be a matter of posture or the cut of his topcoat. We know that he is chivalrous, determined, active and headstrong. He has stuck to his last despite having for the first time fallen in with a damsel in distress who despite becoming an heiress to vast wealth "has given him more than a half-promise that she will some day reward his devotion to her in the way he most desires."
In Sexton Blake's Peril he outlines to a prospective client the principles upon which the partnership of Blake and Gervaise conducts its practice:
"If you look for any dishonourable work at our hands you may spare your own words and our time. We do not interfere in disputes between man and wife, nor do we pursue defaulting clerks. But if there is a wrong to be righted, an evil to be redressed, or a rescue of the weak and the 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."
Or, as Sherlock Holmes told "The Gold King", J. Neil Gibson, "My professinal fees are upon a fixed scale. I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether."
Philip Marlowe was more prosaic,"Twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses, mostly gasoline and whisky."
We have, too, a likeness of Jules Gervaise — a slim, thin-faced man of indeterminate age with close-cropped dark hair cut en brosse. I think his character is more fully rounded out by Harry Blyth than that of Sexton Blake, who for the moment is little more than an embodiment of the standard heroic virtues and sentiments. Gervaise's personality is not too apparent from the accounts of those exploits of his partner in which he shared but he features solo in one story. It is The Accusing Shadow by Harry Blyth and has been reprinted in the Oxford University Press anthology, VICTORIAN TALES OF MYSTERY & DETECTION edited by Michael Cox (Oxford 1992). Having read them all, I think this is the best of Blyth's stories of Blake and Gervaise.
It would seem that having settled in London, Jules Gervaise has soon come to contemplate retirement, but with no particular desire to return to his native France. At the beginning of the story we find him,"thin, wiry, alert, and wonderfully keen-eyed" with an acquaintance, Saul Lynn, seated "together in the latter's dining-room in a small comfortable house in the neighbourhood of Kennington Oval." Gervaise has just explained that he has tired of his profession and:
"So it comes that now I say gladly, let my good partner, Sexton Blake take the rewards and the honours, while I sit peacefully under my vine and cultivate my garden."
In the course of their conversation it transpires that Saul Lynn's daughter, Daisy, is shortly to marry a business acquaintance of her father's, George Roach, and Lynn (a widower) will then retire too, and he suggests that afterwards he and Gervaise might share a house. It soon becomes clear that Daisy is marrying Roach to save her father, who is greatly indebted to him, from bankruptcy, and that she is really drawn towards Rupert Peel, a clerk of her prospective husband's. Soon after, however, it develops that Mr. Roach has disappeared. He is supposed to have gone to Glasgow on business but has not arrived. Presently he is found battered to death in the house in Canonbury which he has taken for the marital home. Suspicion rapidly falls upon the young man and Gervaise undertakes an investigation to find the real culprit. And, of course, he duly succeeds.
The story is nicely told and does not suffer as much as Blyth's Blake cases from fits of transpontine fustian when declarations of love or of other sensibilities take place. Gervaise is clearly drawn as a man of shrewd and incisive mind with a pleasant sense of irony, and a calm and unruffled temperament. He is clearly a man of a very different cast of mind to the young Sexton Blake. Gervaise is aware of this himself. At one point he muses:
"I am glad I have no Sexton Blake with me. He would inevitably ride a bicycle, plunge into a stream, or stop an engine in full career, before he got to the end of this business. I must do my acrobatic feats in my head, and on the ground."
One interesting feature of the case is that the identity of a deliberately disfigured corpse is established by dental evidence. This must surely have been a fairly novel idea in detective fiction in 1894.
At the conclusion of the case Gervaise has been so successful that the thought of retiring has to be banished for the time being, but this is the last that Harry Blyth wrote of either Sexton Blake or Jules Gervaise.
The Accusing Shadow benefits by being viewed entirely — with one very short exception — from Gervaise's standpoint as he pursues his investigations: in the Blake stories we rush from point to point with different protagonists at breakneck speed.
After the last of these seven cases it is interesting to note that though they all ended successfully for Blake and Gervaise, none of the villains ever stood trial. One committed suicide to avoid arrest and another went mad. The rest all came to sticky ends of one sort or another (literally so in the case of one who fell into a cauldron of boiling pitch): they fell through roofs, down disused mine shafts, were fortuitously gored and trampled by a bull, or were drowned or burnt alive. It must have saved the Crown a mint. Plainly Harry Blyth believed, with Saint Paul, that the wages of sin is death.
The partnership of Blake and Gervaise ceased, as far as I know, with The Accusing Shadow and though Sexton Blake had thereafter many assistants and voluntary aides, he did not take another partner until he became an Organisation and Tinker was elevated to the status of "Associate and Junior Partner". That was after we learned that his name was properly Edward Carter — though Gwyn Evans in The Crook of Fleet Street (SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY series 2 issue 76) seemed to think it was Tinker (a not uncommon surname after all!) and Lewis Jackson in The Case of the Five Fugitives (SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY series 3 issue 77) told us it was Smith. Ah well, Sexton Blake and Tinker dealt in mysteries didn't they?
© Derek Hinrich