by Derek Hinrich

  • © Derek Hinrich. This article is reproduced here with the author's kind permission.

The Detective's OrdealMy father, who had enjoyed his adventures as a youth, introduced me to Sexton Blake in 1937 when I was eight. He bought me SBL2/603, 'The Victim of the Secret Service' by John G. Brandon (I discovered this when many years later I started collecting Blakes and I found that after forty years I could still remember the splendid Parker covers of the books I had had so many years before).

Through the accident of anno domini, I started to read Blake's adventures just at the end of his Golden Age. I enjoyed them in both THE DETECTIVE WEEKLY, until it closed, and in the SBL and some of the SEXTON BLAKE ANNUALS until my attention wandered at about fourteen and I did not return to them for forty years. When my interest revived, the first books I bought were the Howard Baker anthologies CRIME AT CHRISTMAS and SEXTON BLAKE — STAR OF THE UNION JACK. And so I made the belated acquaintance of the Criminals' Confederation. As my collection grew and I began to read some of the UNION JACKS I acquired, and while I sought completeness as much as possible, I tried particularly to lay my hands on the saga of the Criminals' Confederation. I have, alas, not yet completely succeeded but I have a large part of it, all Robert Murray Graydon's later UJ work, and most of the UJ stories he wrote before he created the Criminals' Confederation. Recently I thought it might be interesting to read these to see if any development could be traced in his work. I have been doing this, happily filling the gaps in my collection by borrowing from the Club and, in one instance, from Bill Bradford.

Robert Murray Graydon's first Blake adventure appeared in UJ 675 of September 16th 1916 and was entitled "The Detective's Ordeal". Although the author had been writing stories for some time — two other, apparently non-Blake stories by him are mentioned on that UJ's cover — the style seems a little stiff on this first outing. It is a neat tale, well plotted as one comes to expect from him. The atmosphere is highly melodramatic. Blake is framed for murder by an ex-convict, a famous but fraudulent society solicitor whom Blake had previously been instrumental in getting sent down for several years. The denouement takes place in the Number One Court at the Old Bailey on the last day of Blake's trial, where the villain, foiled at the eleventh hour by Tinker's evidence, shoots himself. It is a promising beginning.

Five weeks later the UJ published R M Graydon's second Blake story. It was an important one for it introduced readers to one of Blake's most delightful opponents. Dirk Dolland, alias the Bat, is an American citizen. He is a debonair insouciant young man of medium height and slim build, with regular features, yellow-blond hair and cornflower blue eyes, and is described as a gentleman cracksman, but he is more than a simple safebreaker or burglar. As future stories develop he is discovered to be adept at every sort of non-violent crime — forgery, confidence trickery, impersonation. He has worked as a stage magician and is a master of sleight of hand and also of disguise to such an extent that he can sit for a day or two at the same dining table on shipboard as Blake at their seventh encounter, and not be recognised. He is an early type of William Vivian Butler's "durable desperado". He surely exhibits an early example of gangster chic by wearing a balaclava helmet during his first encounter with Blake. He also places Blake in a rather ambivalent position by saving his life on four occasions, three times from the attentions of less fastidious associates, and being wounded once himself on the fourth occasion at the hands of an agent of Mr Reece, of whom, more later.

Although the Bat bulks large and progressively larger in Murray Graydon's stories, he is not the only criminal in these early tales. There are two spectacular villains.

In "The Bogus Detective" an American conman sets up in London as an enquiry agent and at first pulls off some spectacular coups that threaten Blake's position — until Blake unmasks the American's "wife" as a transvestite burglar who has carried out the crimes his "husband" solves.

Then there is John Venn, a criminal policeman even more sinister than the great George Marsden Plummer was at first. After all, Plummer to begin with merely wished to emulate Roger Baskerville (alias Vandeleur, alias Stapleton) and murder his way to a title, in his case the earldom of Sevenoaks, and a rent roll of £40,000 a year ("A moderate income – such a one as a man might jog on with," said the first earl of Durham). Venn, however, is much more of a Jonathan Wilde figure. As himself he is a rising star of the CID with a string of brilliant arrests behind him but under the nom de crime of "The Master" he is the organiser of a gang of thieves and forgers. He encourages their various acts, fences the proceeds of their crimes taking the while a substantial commission, and then when they are ripe for plucking, Detective Inspector Venn makes a spectacular arrest, a very "Wildean" character indeed. Venn has also created another persona for himself, that of a Hatton Garden Jeweller, who, of course, disposes of the Master's haul. He is a fascinating villain but he only appears twice. It always amazes me, though, how men like Venn — or Edgar Wallace's Frog or other hidden masterminds — can hold down one full-time job and yet have one or two others clandestinely on the side. When do they sleep?

In Venn's second appearance, he and Dirk Dolland are the sole survivors of a transatlantic liner, The Megantic, which collides with a submerged iceberg, breaks its back, and sinks in a howling gale.

It is an interesting point but in all these early stories which were nearly all written between 1916 and 1918, the First World War never impinges once. Transatlantic liners cross the ocean with never a hint of convoys or raiders. There is no allusion to such rationing as there was in that war, nor of a blackout against Zeppelins or Gothas. Sexton Blake stories of the war years with references to it abounded, but these appear in a sort of peacetime vacuum — though there is no suggestion that these take place before the War. Jane Austen managed to write her complete works without once referring to the struggle with Napoleon and Robert Murray Graydon achieves a similar feat a hundred years on.

But, in the midst of all this, down Baker Street there comes stumping Robert Murray Graydon's greatest contribution to the saga of Sexton Blake, the stocky figure of Detective Inspector Coutts. He is instantly recognisable, but not yet quite as we came to know and love him. He has his trademark blue Melton overcoat, blue reefer jacketed serge suit and bowler cocked belligerently over one eye. He is bluff, blunt, loyal, fiery-tempered and impulsive and as brave as a bulldog; he has a taste for Blake's whisky and his cigars; but his hair and bristling moustache are black. At least they are when we first meet him. Later, he is clean-shaven. There is also some uncertainty about his name. In one story he walks into a police station and introduces himself to the local DDI: "Hallo. I'm Jim Coutts of the CID". In the next he is "John William Coutts". At sometime in the future his hair must turn ginger, and his Christian name become "George", but not yet.

Coutts' career is saved a little later by the Bat in a display of quite extraordinary quixotic gallantry, for Dirk Dolland allows himself to be arrested by Coutts after having successfully stolen a famous old master painting, the Danesby Murillo. Coutts has been suspended from duty, through the machinations of a jealous rival at the Yard, for alleged incompetence in failing to catch the Bat. The arrest saves Coutts' career and Dolland is sentenced to ten years and sent to the Moor. Certainly they do not come any whiter than Dirk Dolland, and, of course, it is not the last we shall hear of him, for, sure enough, four months into his sentence he stages a daring escape. This case is, incidentally, the first of three times in the saga that poor Coutts suffers the indignity of being suspended from duty. On two later occasions he is saved by Sexton Blake. Perhaps that is why it is so much later that Coutts becomes Chief Inspector (though surely no promotion could have been more overdue).

In another early story, "In Double Harness", two brothers retain Blake and Nelson Lee (then still in practice in the Gray's Inn Road) to investigate their elder brother's murder. It is, I believe, the second time that they co-operate and it is almost like a light comedy to see them at work as the discoveries in the case appear to be nicely distributed to each in turn with both arriving at simultaneous and identical solutions.

Mr ReeceThen Robert Murray Graydon wrote SBL1/41, 'The Mysterious Mr Reece', one of only four contributions he made to the Sexton Blake saga in the longer format. Mr Reece, the future evil genius of the Criminals’ Confederation, is a most mysterious figure indeed. Blake is by no means sure at first that there is a Mr Reece. His only physical manifestation is in a number of messages written in a spidery hand on thin pieces of white card. He is only seen as a shadow upon a screen. When his headquarters is raided all that is found is a dismantled lay figure in a box and a telephonic loudspeaker system through which his voice — or a voice — was sent from a distance. It is possible that Mr Reece is only a name used to front a gang, any member of which might be Mr Reece on occasion. This is quite a novel idea, and the does-he-does-he-not-exist enigma is nicely maintained through several stories where only messages and assassins are what we see of Reece, while Blake ponders and, perhaps, the author makes up his mind. The shadow of Mr Reece infests these stories like a plague. Blake begins to believe he is real and senses his presence in an almost psychic manner at one moment.

I do think the "Mr" is a nice touch, so genteel for such a villain. The first three encounters are indeed concerned solely with attempts by Mr Reece, if he exists, to murder Sexton Blake: the first time in an attempt to pervert the course of justice by preventing Blake giving evidence in the trial of an associate of Reece’s. In the other two it is purely on the principle that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Dirk Dolland is more and more on the side of the angels here as he, too, has fallen foul of Mr Reece and begins to share an informal truce with Blake. In fact the contest for a time becomes almost quadrangular, until Dolland earns an informal pardon as long as he keeps his nose clean for his assistance in dealing with Reece ... but before that Blake and Dolland are in partnership versus Reece, and Blake and Coutts are in partnership versus Reece, and Coutts is also after Dolland whom he believes in the time-honoured phrase, "May assist him in his enquiries."

By the time of their fourth encounter, the matter is resolved. Mr Reece exists. First Tinker, then Blake encounters him. He was "... the most repulsive man that Tinker had ever set eyes on. And with one glance he knew that he stood in the presence of the greatest criminal the world had ever known — Mr Reece!

"It was a face that Tinker dreamt about for many weeks afterwards — pallid to the greyish hue of a corpse, wrinkled like the back of a spotted toad, and with a head that was as bald as an egg, the cranial development sagging over the ears, and bulging out over the bony eye sockets, wherein were set two eyes that seemed to glow with the lustre of transparent green jade.

"Green as emeralds they were and as unwinking as those of an owl, and in their depths seemed to lurk the concentration of all that was evil, callous, malevolent, and cunning. The man’s hands were like the claws of a bird, yellow as old ivory, and thin as a bunch of dried bones. His nose was shaped like the beak of a vulture, and seemed just as fleshless and as osseous, and the thin, cruel-lipped mouth beneath it was twisted in a continual sneer.

"... To guess the man’s age was impossible — he might have been anything from eighty to a hundred and twenty, or even older. His skin looked like the dried skin of an Egyptian mummy, and his whole body may have been dead save for the wonderful light of mental virility and intelligence that glowed in the heart of the big unwinking eyes."

Not very prepossessing, what?

You will note that by this time Mr Reece has become "the greatest criminal the world had ever known". Blake does not actually say that. Unlike his old neighbour, Mr Sherlock Holmes, he has no need to talk up the villainy of his opponents to boost his own success. In this case, incidentally, Reece has organised a mini-crimewave of fourteen bank robberies and the mass circulation of counterfeit notes in a little over two weeks. His men have murdered one police constable and kidnapped sixteen others and Sir Henry Fairfax, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, whom they have all incarcerated in a makeshift prison in the basement of a warehouse in Southwark. Evidently Mr Reece doesn’t do things by halves, though there is no indication of what he intends to do with his prisoners. They must have been a drain on the gang’s manpower, if nothing else.

A little later Mr Reece is apparently drowned at sea. Of course he isn’t. Reece is too good a character to throw away. Blakian master criminals have a habit, like Dracula and Frankenstein, Pere et Monstre, in Hollywood and Hammer, of being resuscitated. Reece’s presence is still shadowy and more an emanation of evil rather than a firm character. Another problem is that if you are dealing with "the greatest criminal the world has ever known" then he should really commit a crime of commensurate calibre, to loot the Bank of England, say, or steal the crown jewels — as Paramount made Moriarty do in the 1939 film The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Of course Reece had nearly got there in "The Vanished Police" with his robbery of fourteen banks in nearly as many days, and there I think lies the seed of Robert Murray Graydon’s great concept.

Reverse "the Vanished Police" and you have, six months later, "The Missing Crooks". And where are the crooks going? Why, to join a new international organisation, The Criminals Confederation and their Recruiting Sergeant is Mr Reece. Of course the greatest criminal the world has known is not likely to settle for the number two position for long and a great fight against the hydra-headed monster of the Confederation he controls lies happily ahead for Blake and Coutts in the years to come.