by Derek Hinrich

  • "The neuroses, you know, are particularly clever criminals — they break out in as many disguises as—"
    "As Leon Kestrel, the Master Mummer," suggested Parker, who read railway-stall detective stories on the principle of the 'busman's' holiday.
    — Whose Body, Chapter 6

Sayers1. Sexton Blake [see note 1]
Sexton Blake first appeared in The Halfpenny Marvel in 1893 in the story "The Missing Millionaire". Over the next ten years some fifty stories of Blake's exploits appeared in various publications of the Amalgamated Press and it was only in 1904 that a single story paper, The Union Jack, became his regular home, in which he appeared weekly in stories of between 25,000 and 40,000 words in length. In 1933, The Union Jack was revamped as The Detective Weekly. In 1915, a series of cheap paperback novels of some 60,000 words each, The Sexton Blake Library, was also started. These were monthly publications. The number of new titles each month varied, but in the heyday of his popularity in the 'twenties and 'thirties of the last century, four new Sexton Blake novels were published each month. There were thus a hundred adventures of Sexton Blake published each year in those years. The Detective Weekly ceased publication in May 1940, killed off by the wartime paper shortage, but The Sexton Blake Library continued, with some interruptions, in attenuated form, until 1970.

Over two hundred authors — some of them very well-known in their day — contributed more than two hundred million words to some four thousand stories of Sexton Blake over the seventy-odd years in which his cases were chronicled.

Those who wrote about him regularly tended to develop their own, subsidiary, series characters in their stories. These were either allies of Blake (as Dorothy L Sayers once contemplated using Lord Peter Wimsey in an early stage of his development, when he was the younger son of the Duke of Peterborough) [see note 2] or master criminals, but generally the latter, so many indeed so described to distinguish them from ordinary criminals that one might almost wonder if someone somewhere was issuing diplomas.

They were an exotic and flamboyant set of desperadoes. The doyen was George Marsden Plummer, a renegade Scotland Yard man who began by trying to murder his way to the earldom of Sevenoaks, and subsequently was Abdel Krim's right-hand man during the great Riff rebellion in the 'twenties. The most popular was probably the Criminals' Confederation, a hydra-headed international crime consortium; the most sinister, Prince Wu Ling, Grand Master of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle, a far more plausible embodiment of the Yellow Peril than Dr Fu Manchu; but Monsieur Zenith — "Zenith the Albino" (reputedly a member of the Romanian branch of the House of Hohenzollern) — who, despite being wanted by the police of five continents, dressed at all times of day or night in white tie and tails; and Leon Kestrel, the Master Mummer were the most dashing conceptions.

2. Leon Kestrel
Leon Kestrel was, to my mind, the most original creation amongst the great serial villains with whom Sexton Blake periodically crossed swords. He was the invention of Jack Lewis, a staff writer of the Amalgamated Press, who used the pen name "Lewis Jackson", when Sexton Blake stories ceased to be published anonymously.

Kestrel first appeared in The Union Jack, No 620, on August 28th 1915 in a story called "The Case of the Cataleptic". The sobriquet "The Master Mummer" may have been inspired by an E Phillips Oppenheim novel of 1908 of that name. Kestrel was originally an actor (hence the "Mummer"). The following passage from "The Case of the Cataleptic" shows Blake studying the CV of Kestrel in his files:

"Born at Wisconsin, USA. Educated for the stage. Achieved considerable eminence as an actor. Disappeared suddenly, and it was not discovered for some years that he had forsaken his profession for a career of crime at once unique and remarkable.

There followed a long and detailed list of the crimes which he was supposed to have perpetrated, which Blake studied with minute thoroughness. When he had collected these details he had earmarked the man as of unique and original methods. But Kestrel’s career, though long successful, had at last come to the inevitable end. At the end of the list this fact was recorded:

"Apprehended September, 1910. Sentenced to penal servitude for life in the Pittsburg Penitentiary."

It soon transpires that Kestrel has escaped from prison three months before, and the US authorities believe he may have fled to the UK. As befits any self-respecting Master Criminal, Kestrel is a Master of Disguise, to an extent even greater than might be ordinarily expected from a formerly distinguished character actor, as a New York detective correspondent explains to Blake in a letter later in the narrative:

"The man himself is a nonentity; he hardly ever exists. I believe I am correct in saying that only the prison authorities in Pittsburg have seen his real face. According to them, his face is thin, with the skin drawn tightly over the cheekbones. By some means known to himself, he has rendered his face and head absolutely hairless, and he has no teeth. His eyes are a watery grey, which is practically colourless.

"He is of medium height, apparently, but walks with a deceptive stoop, so that by straightening his carriage unduly he can appear quite tall. He can also appear much shorter by emphasising the stoop.

"You can now see, my dear Blake, the really wonderful opportunities the man has for lifelike impersonation, especially when you consider his wonderful faculty of acting and his great knowledge of make-up. He can assume almost any complexion, dark or fair, by choice of eyebrows or wig. His teeth can be bright and regular, or irregular and decayed, according to his needs. I have heard on good authority that he possesses a preparation of belladonna by which he can colour the eyes without harm.

"The thinness of his face renders it almost easy for him to assume a plumpness of feature by the arrangement of wax moulds inside the mouth. As I have said he can be nearly short and nearly tall. In brief, he is a unique, dangerous, and utterly unscrupulous character. "

Kestrel was the leader of a gang frequently referred to as his "syndicate". Its regular members were small in number: Lessing, the former scientific instrument-maker; Madrano, the steeple-jack; "Papa" Bierce and his daughter, Fifette (Kestrel’s mistress); and Semiramis, the Greek fence. Leon Kestrel appeared as an adversary of Sexton Blake in 37 novellas in The Union Jack and its successor The Detective Weekly, and in 16 novels in The Sexton Blake Library. He also featured in a novel-length serial, "The Fox of Pennyfields” in The Union Jack in 1927. After 1927, however, he virtually disappeared from the Sexton Blake saga, featuring in only four stories in the 'thirties. Their last encounter, after many years, was in 1944.

A total of nine stories featuring Kestrel appeared in The Union Jack or The Sexton Blake Library in both 1919 and 1920, and 12 in 1921. These were the years when Dorothy L Sayers was reading The Sexton Blake Library [see note 3], subjecting it to the higher criticism which she later applied to Sherlock Holmes and contemplating, however briefly, contributing to it.

She plainly had a fondness for the Sexton Blake saga. She commissioned a Sexton Blake story [see note 4] for The Evening Standard when editing its daily short story (the author W W Sayer, alias "Pierre Quiroule", frugal man that he was, adapted one of his Union Jack stories, which was itself already an abridgement of part of an earlier Sexton Blake Library novel, for the purpose). She also famously paid tribute to the stories of Sexton Blake in a lecture since ... "they represent the nearest approach to a national folk-lore, conceived as the centre for a cycle of loosely connected romances in the Arthurian manner ..."

If Dorothy L. Sayers continued to read The Sexton Blake Library, I wonder if she was flattered by Number 449 of 4th October 1934, "The Blazing Launch Mystery", by Rex Hardinge. The convoluted plot deals with an insurance fraud but it begins with a famous violinist falling to his death from a balcony with a low balustrade. At first it appears to have been an accident, but Blake finds a pebble on the balcony and realises how murder was done ...

And between 1933 and 1940, in 56 novels in The Sexton Blake Library and one short story in The Detective Weekly by John G. Brandon, Sexton Blake enjoyed the assistance of the Honourable Ronald Sturges Vereker Purvale (known as RSVP to his friends), the eldest son of Viscount Ebdale. Purvale is a tall, blond, monocled young man without a "g" in anything he says ending in "ing", but any Wimseycal traits stop there. He has a broken nose and a cauliflower ear, and a man, "Flash George" Wibley, who is a former safe-breaker. Purvale is thus rather more a mixture of Bulldog Drummond and Bertie Wooster, but surely there is a trace of homage there.

But there is no single volume called "The Adventures of Sexton Blake", as cited at the head of Chapter 7 of "Clouds of Witness", nor is there any volume in The Sexton Blake Library entitled "The Clue of the Crimson Star", despite the reading matter of Ginger, the office boy, in Chapter 6 of "Murder Must Advertise".

[1] I am a collector of Sexton Blake stories and the information on Blake and his adversaries is drawn from my own collection, from the chapter on Sexton Blake in E.S. Turner's classic study of "blood and thunders", Boys Will Be Boys, and from The Sexton Blake Index published by the London Old Boys' Book Club, of which I am a member.

[2] See Chapter 12, "Enter Lord Peter Wimsey", of Dorothy L. Sayers Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds.

[3] But particularly in 1919. See Chapter 5, "Adrift”, of Dorothy L. Sayers Her Life and Soul.

[4] "Sexton Blake Solves It" appeared in The Evening Standard on 23rd November 1936. It derived from The Union Jack story "The Clayton Moat Mystery" of 1923 which in turn was based on The Sexton Blake Library novel "The Mystery Box" of 1920 (later republished as "The Case of the Bismark Memoirs"). It was also reprinted in the anthology of Sexton Blake stories edited by Jack Adrian, Sexton Blake Wins, published by J M Dent & Sons Ltd in their Classic Thrillers series in 1986. As the copyright of the name "Sexton Blake" was held by the Amalgamated Press, some delicate negotiations were necessary before a Blake story could appear in a Beaverbrook paper.

© Derek Hinrich