by S. Gordon Swan

  • This article first appeared in THE COLLECTORS' DIGEST Vol. 21 issue 247, July 1967. Reproduced with permission.

Detective Inspector Coutts

Since the inception of the Blake saga in 1893, many members of the CID have stalked the pages of the various periodicals devoted to Blake's adventures, but only one has survived from earlier days to battle his way through to the precarious present. Inspector Coutts is best remembered by old timers for his encounters with Dirk Dolland and his epic struggles alongside Blake and Tinker against the infamous Criminals' Confederation.

His creator, Robert Murray, subjected him to many adventures grave and gay, but in addition Anthony Skene came along and brought him into contact with that brilliant criminal, Zenith; Gwyn Evans involved him in some bizarre exploits; other authors featured him in a number of investigations; and the modern writers introduce him into the current scene without his appearing an anachronism.

Certainly he is a somewhat more dignified Coutts than the officer who smoked an exploding cigar supplied by Tinker, or jumped on his bowler hat in a fit of exasperation, or spouted whisky like a whale when overcome by some emotion the nature of which I cannot remember. One is pleased to note he has achieved promotion in the past few years; surely he deserved it after more than fifty years of service!

Apart from Coutts, however, other names spring to mind from the bowler hat brigade, Harker, Martin, Widgeon, Rollings, Superintendent (otherwise Inspector) Boar, (alternatively Bore); Spearing, the egregious Superintendent Claudius Venner, Lennard — and, — of course, the more recent additions, Superintendent Dukelow and Commander Grimwade.

One of the earliest entrants on the scene must be Murray Graydon's Inspector Widgeon, a peculiar, eccentric character who was at times friendly towards Blake and at others definitely hostile. Sometimes he would play a straight-forward role and give staunch support to Blake; at others he would get into a towering rage and deride Blake and his methods and threaten the detective with dire penalties for allowing some criminal to slip through his fingers. His worst manifestation was in a crime involving Chinese when he became the recipient of a symbol denoting death. He gave such an exhibition of craven cowardice that was scarcely consonant with his position as a Scotland Yard officer and it is difficult to believe that a man of his training and experience would betray such a yellow streak so blatantly. (UNION JACK 310 — ‘The Yellow Cord’).

Widgeon appeared solely in Murray Graydon's stories, except in one instance. In a story of Dr. Satira, while Coutts was temporarily off-stage, Robert Murray introduced his father's creation into the Union Jack, from whose pages Inspector Widgeon had long been absent.

Inspector Martin is another who might be described as a pioneer of the CID brigade. Several authors introduced him into their yarns, notably Norman Goddard, Mark Osborne and Lewis Jackson, and he is to be found in the early Rex Hardinge stories. It is noticeable that Mark Osborne, in writing of this character, had him talking in the jerky, telegrammatic style of Inspector Spearing.

The latter appeared in many of the Norman Goddard stories from 1905 onwards. He was a stodgy, unimaginative individual who spoke in the jerky style aforementioned. An odd aspect of this inspector is that, while he was fading out of the pages of the Union Jack, he began to appear in a series of adventures in Pluck. These stories lasted for some years and were written by a number of authors.

As far as the Pluck yarns were concerned, Spearing (called more familiarly Will and very much younger) was the hero, and appeared to be brighter and more intelligent than the older inspector who blundered along with Blake. In some of the stories in Pluck, Spearing had a girl-friend named Nell Renard, who was difficult to reconcile with the descriptions given of Inspector Spearing's wife in the Union Jack.

On one occasion at least, in the Pluck series, Will Spearing encountered Laban Creed, whom Sexton Blake fans will remember as an opponent of the great detective, and a creation of W. Murray Graydon.

Inspector Lennard we know as the Scotland Yard man who appeared in the Waldo stories, and was exclusively written of by Edwy Searles Brooks. It is interesting to note that, while some of the inspectors were written of by several authors, others seemed to remain the property of their creator. Another of this ilk is Inspector Rollings, and one may also include in this category Andrew Murray' s officer with the variable surname and rank, Boar or Bore.

Despite the long-term affection one feels for Coutts, it has always appeared to me that the most level-headed and likeable of the CID men was Edward Harker. Other authors also wrote of him — Coutts Brisbane, Anthony Skene, Reginald Poole, even A. C. Murray. But it is Lewis Jackson's conception that I remember, a man of integrity, unassuming and intelligent, a good police officer — and a good friend and admirer of Blake.

In Blake's long battle with Kestrel and his syndicate, Harker was at Blake's side most of the time, and his assistance was invaluable, his loyalty and honesty unimpeachable. It is to be regretted that we do not hear of him nowadays.

Running Harker a close second was Inspector Rollings, who lined up with Blake to counter the cunning schemes of the Indian criminal Gunga Dass. There is a tragedy to be spoken of in this connection. In the last story of Inspector Rollings — not a Gunga Dass yarn — the Scotland Yard man was found dead in a locked room. At first it was believed to be suicide, but when it became apparent that it was murder Sexton Blake and Tinker set out to catch the murderer and vindicate their old friend Rollings. This noteworthy occasion will be remembered by those who read ‘The Riddle of the Amber Room.’ This is the only instance I can recall of an inspector who was featured in a series of stories eventually being killed in the course of duty.

That arbiter of sartorial elegance, Superintendent Claudius Venner, was not a likeable character, although a conspicuous one. He was not a staunch friend of Blake, but a self-opinionated, unscrupulous officer who picked the brains of his long-suffering "handmaiden" Detective-Sergeant Belford and of the great detective as well, if he could manage it. His verbal feuds with Tinker provided some amusement, but one does not remember him with admiration. The later arrival, Dukelow, resembles him in many characteristics.

Of the newcomers Commander Grimwade impresses one as a man to respect, of solid worth and integrity. In the final analysis, however, Inspector Harker remains in my mind as “the best of them all.”

© S. Gordon Swan