SIXTY YEARS OF SEXTON BLAKE
by Walter Webb
1. The First Twenty Years
It was exactly 60 years ago that the now world-famous name of Sexton Blake appeared in print for the first time, and for the last 48 years, without a break, the thrilling adventures he has undergone in all parts of the world in his fight against crime has endeared him to millions. To have survived the first world war was no mean feat; to come through the second and most disastrous conflict of all, what time nearly all the other weeklies and monthlies were going out of circulation, was proof enough of the enormous popularity he had built up during the preceding years.
It was a modest little story that first ever adventure of Sexton Blake, comprising no more than 15,000 or 16,000 words in length, written by a man named Blyth for the ½d MARVEL, and passed for publication by its editor, a forceful, go-ahead young man, named Somers J. Summers. Harry Blyth, an already ageing author, a round-faced, rather sleepy-looking gentleman, thick-set, with a scrubby dark moustache, was the man who gave Blake to the world. Quite a good writer, he died in the very early days.
Blake appeared spasmodically, sometimes in the pages of the MARVEL but more often in the UNION JACK, which paper eventually became his own, and in 1895 W. Shaw Rae took over from Blyth. Shaw Rae, whose real name was Treeton, was a cheery little man, fair-haired, with a big moustache and side-boards. A happy slave to the nicotine habit, it was rarely, indeed, that he was seen without a cigarette between his lips.
Authors who followed Shaw Rae as Blake chroniclers were, in the order of their appearance, as follows: Arnold Grahame (UJ no.72), Melton Whyte (no.75), and Herbert (no. 82). In no. 147 Shaw Rae introduced a Chinese boy named We-wee as assistant to Blake and the little Celestial figured in about a dozen adventures. The sixth UJ author to write of Blake was a man named Campbell Brown, then followed Paul Herring, Mark Darran, Percival Cooke, and Alec G. Pearson, the latter bringing in his own character, Maxwell Grey, the sea detective, to work in harness with Sexton Blake.
When, at five o'clock in the afternoon on October the 11th, 1899, the armed forces of two Boer Republics set to carry out their threat of sweeping the English from South Africa into the sea and so began the Boer, it might be expected that Blake would soon be drawn into the conflict. But, as a matter of fact, very few Blake stories were published during that savage campaign, and in none of them did his authors show any inclination to draw him into it. As far as the Boer War was concerned, the plans of President Stephanus Paulus Johannes Kruger, the evil genius of that epoch, had no interference at the hands of Sexton Blake, whilst those famous British generals, Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener, among others, got no material benefit from a Blake working behind the scenes in the interest of his country.
For a period of nearly two ears, Blake was not featured in the UNION JACK; then in October 1904 Alec G. Pearson brought him back, and, two issues later, Herbert Maxwell introduced Tinker for the first time. Blake now began to appear more regularly and from the 25th October, 1905, he began his unbroken run in the pages of the UNION JACK. More authors began to enter the arena of Blake writers, the four most regular contributors being W. Murray Graydon, who came across from the United States, Mark Darran, who introduced Mr. Spearing of Scotland Yard, Herbert Maxwell and Beverley Kent. Then there was Michael Storm, still an unsolved mystery where Blake is concerned, who is known to have written quite a good number of stories. Storm suddenly disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and was then "ghosted" for by G. H. Teed, whose style of writing was similar to Storm's own. When Storm's death was established, Teed came into his own, and although he introduced Yvonne anonymously, stories under his own name appeared at intervals in other periodicals. Herbert Maxwell, a good writer, who wrote some very readable stories, dropped out of the UNION JACK in 1908 with, according to my lists, nineteen Blake yarns to his credit, his place being taken by Allan Blair, who made his debut that same year. Lobangu and Sir Richard Losely appeared occasionally; they were popular characters of the early days, and were joined by George Marsden Plummer, who made his bow in January 1908. A curious point about that first story was the fact that, although an editorial announcement was made to the effect that Plummer would be appearing again very shortly, it was eighteen months before we heard anything more about him. Then, on the 24th July, 1909, he appeared in an exploit, entitled IN DEADLY GRIP, in which Sir Richard Losely made a brief appearance. But it was not the Plummer we grew to know in later years; he was not the big, powerful, bearded villain of the first world war days, and no mention was made of his nail-biting habit, and the curious way his eyes glowed a baleful green when anger suffused him. Clearly, the man who wrote those first two Plummer stories and who doubtless, created the character, was not the same individual as he who chronicled the later ones. I have a strong theory that the man who first brought Plummer into conflict with Blake was Lewis Carlton, one-time editor of the UNION JACK, and BOYS' JOURNAL, and that he relinquished his monopoly of the character when, owing to the great popularity of the stories which featured him, it was decided to star him in PLUCK and the BOYS' JOURNAL as well. John Bobin, later known as Mark Osborne, then took over Plummer on behalf of the UNION JACK, Mark Darran wrote about him for PLUCK and Lewis Carlton continued to relate his exploits against Blake in the BOYS' JOURNAL. Carlton despite his editorial duties, once found time to appear in a film featuring Sexton Blake, and his name appears in the cast as playing the part of Tinker which points to the fact that he must have been a very young man at the time.
After October 1909, I cannot trace any more stories by Beverley Kent so it is probable that he dropped out during that year, a retirement which left the UNION JACK a lot poorer, for Kent, a lively, convincing writer, was, in my opinion, the best of all the very early early contributors. In his hands Blake was a big, genial man brimful of energy and wit, Tinker a happy-go-lucky, harum-scarum schoolboy type.
The year 1910 can almost be described as W. Murray Graydon's year, for no less than a third of the stories of Blake published came from his pen during that period. George Marsden Plummer, sometimes in alliance with another shady character named John Marsh, gave Blake quite a warm time during the same year.
1911 is noteworthy for the reason that Andrew Murray came on the scene, and introduced Count Ivor Carlac as an enemy to Blake the following year. The second half of 1912 saw the detective in continuous action against Plummer and Carlac; and then an entirely new note was sounded in Blake's activities. In January 1913, the glamorous Mademoiselle Yvonne came to pit her feminine wiles against the machinations of the men who had been responsible for the death of her father and, consequently, against Sexton Blake, who sought to restrain her from her grim purpose. How Yvonne's first feelings of hatred towards Blake, when he foiled her again and again in her intentions, and how that hatred turned gradually into a great respect, and finally, love, for the grim, determined detective, and how that deep affection was reciprocated, yet reluctantly spurned, when Blake put his career first, has been told in many a thrilling and human episode.
Three weeks after Yvonne's introduction came Dr. Huxton Rymer, the big, bearded adventurer, who gave Blake many a rough house in all parts of the globe. Rymer was a great character; crook though he was he at once excited the sympathy of his reader by reason of his sterling qualities. Unlike Plummer, who was thoroughly bad, Rymer had certain scruples, and fought in accordance with them.
In June of the same year, Prince Wu Ling, of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle, brought yellow menace from the East, and now Blake's enemies began to assume very formidable proportions. It is still 1913, and that 13th year did begin to look like proving Blake's unlucky number, for one month later still another bad hat came along to further harass him, already overworked though he was. This time it was the stunted frame and big, bald head of Professor Kew which thrust themselves into Blake's province; and then to cap it all, no less a person than Maxwell Scott had to bring in another adversary, to make the odds against Blake quite overwhelming. This time it was the Scorpion, and now Blake, hard-pressed, and denied the services of Mr. Spearing, who had dropped out of the stories, could have wished for the invaluable services of his close friend and fellow-investigator, Nelson Lee, of Gray's Inn Road. But, after the case of The Winged Terror, Blake and Lee had gone their different ways, and Blake had to rely on practically the sole assistance of Tinker.
Blake's cup of bitterness must have overflown when just before the end of the year another of the crook fraternity crossed his path. Meet now Henri Garock, known to the Underworld as The Snake.
The first faint rumblings heralding the bitter conflict that was on to spread such chaos and indescribable misery throughout Europe could be felt as Blake continued his onslaught against this fresh wave of crime which had been thrust upon society. Even then new adversaries streamed into the arena. We met Aubrey Dexter, the gentleman crook; the big crime organisation known as the Council of Eleven; and Ezra Q. Maitland, and his wife, Kathleen, known as Broadway Kate. The Hon. John Lawliss, later known as Lawless, came along, but in his case the issue was very different; he came to aid Blake, not to fight him.
The Kaiser, who had appeared in several UNION JACK stories, and had been painted in colours other than those he deserved by one or two Blake authors whose hearts were more generous than truthful, now became an object of derision and scorn as the clouds of war grow ominously black and the feeling that a military upheaval was now inevitable became a stranglehold. Naturally, when the storm did break, we came in for a spate of war-stories.
First among Blake authors to join up was Norman Goddard, who wrote under the pseudonym of Mark Darran. A good soldier, he was, unhappily, never to return to the surroundings in which he loved to roam.
Despite the war, there vas no paper shortage at first, and double-numbers continued to be issued in the UNION JACK, and in 1915 the SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY made its appearance. As the days ahead were to become a terribly grim and anxious period, so, too, were they destined to be the prelude to an era in which the Sexton Blake stories enjoyed a popularity never before achieved in the world oi fiction. Blake's stock was rising to dizzy heights, his grip on the imagination of his public was ever tightening. The best stories of his adventures were yet to come — as yet the Criminals' Confederation, Leon Kestrel, Waldo, Zenith — all of these were unknown, but soon to make their bow in a long succession of popular stories, and so begin the second part of this article.
2. The Palmy Days of Sexton Blake
As the mighty armies of the Kaiser swept across Europe, spreading death and destruction in their wake, Christmas 1914 was not the happy, carefree Yuletide as others before it had been; the unusual sight of so many young men in khaki, and the military reverses abroad, had the effect of spreading over what would otherwise have been an occasion for gaiety and joy a veneer of uneasiness and gloom.
But, for a time, at least, the stories of Sexton Blake continued to come as of yore. A double number issue of the UNION JACK, containing a story of Mademoiselle Yvonne, brought to a close a satisfactory year, in so far as that paper was concerned.
The war did not minimise Blake's popularity in the least; on the contrary it increased it to a remarkable extent, as the following facts prove quite conclusively:
September 1915 saw the birth of the SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY, one volume per month being issued until July 1916 when, although faced with a paper shortage, an extra volume was added. When paper did get really scarce and periodicals, including the MAGNET and GEM, shortened the length of their contents, the demand for Blake was such that no restriction in his case was considered, and to avoid any such repetition, a smaller type was used.
It was in August 1915 that Blake readers were introduced to Leon Kestrel, the master mummer, who was to prove one of the most popular crook characters ever to appear in opposition to Blake. Jack Lewis, his creator, remains today as the sole survivor of those men who related Blake's exploits during the first world war. As the year was drawing to its close, the quaint character of Humble Begge, the mild, scholarly-looking individual known as the Man of Peace, made his first appearance.
Never before, nor since, has the old country felt such bitterness and hatred towards another as it did during that fateful year, for the atrocities committed by the Hun were such that not only did the newspapers make wrathful protests, but several Blake writers made bitter denunciations of their tactics in the stories they wrote for the UNION JACK. And well they might! there are still those who remember the horror of that occasion on the 7th of May when the Lusitania was sunk by the German submarine U20, and caused the death of 1,198 men, women and children — all non-combatants — by drowning. With so many families mourning the loss of loved ones, Christmas 1915 was one of heartache and anxiety rather than of happiness and serenity, but for the Sexton Blake enthusiast there was that usual double-number of the UNION JACK to lighten the gloom a little — a story of Yvonne by George Hamilton Teed.
1916 saw the first published Sexton Blake work of Robert Murray, famed creator of the Confederation stories. That famous and popular personage of the C.I.D., Scotland Yard, Detective-inspector Coutts, created by the aforementioned writer, also made his debut that year.
By that time stories of The Snake and The Scorpion had been told, but in their stead came Captain Horatio Peak, D.S.O., and Dirk Dolland, the gentleman cracksman, otherwise known as The Bat. The latter, from being a dangerous enemy, was to become one of Blake's firmest friends in later years.
Blake readers were digesting a story called "The Parrowby Will Mystery", by Allan Blair, when on the front page of nearly every newspaper in the world was splashed the news of the sinking of H.M.S. Hampshire, with Lord Kitchener on board. As the long and bitter battles of Verdun and Jutland raged there were few Blake stories which did not deal with the war to some extent.
It was in 1917 that Sexton Blake lost one of his famous authors, for Norman Goddard was killed in action. A transport driver, the author was making his way up the line under heavy fire when he was struck down. It was in tales of the wild and woolly West that Norman Goddard revelled, and although never at his best when wrestling with a Blake story, one finds it difficult to recall more than one really poor contribution. His last detective story was published in the SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY in January 1917. It was entitled "The Man With the Green Eyes", and featured the master criminal, George Marsden Plummer.
That same year new characters continued to be introduced. In the glamour department, there was the voluptuous Marie Galante, Glory Gale, the girl reporter, and Camille, and they were joined by Prince Menes, the Egyptian, and the crook known as The Black Rat.
Paper shortage was then acute, and both the UNION JACK and SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY were forced to cut down on their supplies, with the result that a new, smaller type had to be used in order to cram into the restricted space the same story length as before. In October we read G. H. Teed's last Blake story for nearly five years, when the author answered the call. With him went Jack Lewis, but in his case the time lapse was not so great — the Kestrel author was back with us again after two years in the navy. The loss of those two writers left a very big gap, for with the authors went also the many characters they had conceived. That gap was never adequately filled, even though Edwy Searles Brooks and Sidney Drew were introduced and brought in their own famous characters to entertain us — Nelson Lee, Nipper and Waldo, the Wonder-Man by the former, and Ferrers Lord, Gan Waga and Rupert Thurston by Drew. The author of the St. Frank's stories introduced the Letter File series, in which the narrative was unfolded by means of a series of letters written by one character to another, e, g, from Sexton Blake to Nelson Lee, and from Tinker to Nipper, and vice versa. Novel, if not particularly brilliant, those stories were attractively written.
UNION JACK readers were introduced to the sinister Mr. Reece during the summer months of 1918, one of the most ruthless characters ever conceived by Robert Murray. Mr. Reece was very soon to become president of that notorious army of crooks known as the Criminals' Confederation.
Blake fans were purchasing a copy of the UNION JACK containing a story called "The Dual Detectives" by E. S. Brooks, which featured, in addition to the famous Baker Street pair, Nelson Lee and Nipper, when the brightest news of the war came from the Allied front. German offensives had been stemmed, the Allies were attacking on every front. Then on November 9 the revolution in Berlin, the abdication of the Kaiser, and two days later that well-remembered eleventh day — the occasion of the Armistice. Peace again, a gradual improvement in paper supplies, the introduction into the UNION JACK of the gigantic crime organisation known as the Criminals' Confederation.
During that terrifically hot summer of 1919 when the grass was burnt yellow and brown in earth baked to iron hardness in the scorching heat, came Trouble Nantucket, the American detective, and the welcome return of Leon Kestrel, the fascinating personality of Fifette Bierce, Madrano, the Spanish steeplejack, Lessing, Semiramis and the rest of the notorious Kestrel Syndicate. In October came the first exploit of the bizarre and very popular character, Zenith the Albino, followed six months later by that unusual personality, Count Bonalli, known as The Owl, due to his ability of being able to see in the dark. Came Cavendish Doyle, British Secret Service agent, and the small-time crook, known as Basil Wicketshaw, both conceptions of W. Murray Graydon. Sexton Blake was fast then approaching his greatest year. By 1920 the many admirers of Yvonne were happy again, for there was mademoiselle, shoulder to shoulder with Sexton Blake, in opposition to the Confederation, although whether with or without the authority of her conceptor, Hamilton Teed, it is hard to say.
The UNION JACK was sporting a new coloured cover when Granite Grant, of the British Secret Service, and the petite Mademoiselle Julie, of the French Secret Service began what was to be quite a good run in the pages of Blake's papers.
A curious point is that although Grant was featured in both, Julie never appeared in the UNION JACK. The author of those stories was W. W. Sayer, who wrote as Pierre Quiroule. As his French pseudonym suggests, Sayer was something of a rolling stone.
New characters continued to arrive. There was Dr. Leppermann, the criminal scientist, and Saburo, the Japanese detective, create by Trevor C. Wignall. We said goodbye to Glory Gale in 1919, but bid welcome to more glamour in the shapeliness of Mademoiselle Claire Delisle, who came early in 1921 followed two months later by another crime menace in Dr. Ferraro.
As new authors such as Alfred Edgar, Michael Poole, Coutts Brisbane, H. Gregory Hill, F. Addington Symonds and L. H. Brooks were introduced so did the criminal antagonists of Sexton Blake grow in number. Included among them was that unusual character, known as The Raven, who was accompanied by the Chinese, Quong Lu. The ranks of the exponents of feminine allure were still further strengthened when Ysabel de Ferre, the Black Duchess of Jorsica, with dark eyes fixed upon the presidency of the Criminals' Confederation, came to conquer, only to find Sexton Blake a stumbling block to her ambitions.
Throughout the summer of 1921, which is remembered as being disastrous for English cricket, when the burly Warwick Armstrong and his fellow Australians easily retained the "Ashes", the stories of Blake in both the UNION JACK and SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY attained a remarkably high level. Christmas of that year saw the introduction of an interesting new character - that giant of a man, known as Janssen the Moonslayer, who was the creation of Stanley Gordon Shaw, brother of the famous Captain Frank H. Shaw. Gordon Shaw stepped most ably into the place vacated by Cecil Hayter, whose long association with Blake had been brought to a close.
The year of 1922 was the greatest in the history of Sexton Blake, for during its fifty-two weeks more words of the character were written per month than at any time previously in his career. An extra volume of the S.B.L. was added to the four already being published per month, making a total output in that library alone of 300,000 words. Added to this there was a further 100,000 in the issues comprising the monthly output of the UNION JACK, which brought the figures to no less than 400,000 words per month. 400,000 words written around one character in one month is a record never equalled — in fact, nothing remotely approaching even near distance of it has occurred in the realms of detective fiction before, and it is safe to say, never will! Truly, of Blake's palmy days those were the palmiest of all! And it was at that time the Detective Supplement was added to the pages of the UNION JACK, one of the most interesting crime features of that era. In that supplement was printed the earliest work of a very young writer who was destined to make a name for himself under a pseudonym which is known throughout the British Isles. Paul Renin, author of, at least, two Sexton Blake stories under his own name and very probably writer of several of the anonymously published tales in the UNION JACK in the 1920's, entered a different field of fiction writing when the Supplement was discontinued, and turned out a long succession of some of the most torrid sex romances ever written in that era.
The return of G. H. Teed, with some of the best work he has ever written, helped to make 1922 a year to be remembered. It was then that Yvonne was withdrawn from the company of Dirk Dolland, Mr. Reece and the Criminals' Confederation, and placed in surroundings into which she had hitherto been accustomed under the guiding hand of her original creator.
Those three amiable-looking fashion-plates, Archie Pherison, Reggie Fetherstone and Algy Somerton, otherwise known as The Three Musketeers, comprised as deadly a trio of crooks as ever crossed swords with Sexton Blake. They were also products of Blake's golden age, and it is also interesting to recollect that a famous author of Blake stories also made his debut at that time. During 1922 Andrew Murray became indisposed, and was unable to turn out his popular stories of Carlac, Kew and the Hon. John Lawless; so, in order to meet the demand, a young recruit named H. Clifford Gibbons was given the role of "ghost-writer", and it was under his authorship that several stories featuring the aforementioned stock characters were written. Later, under the well-known pen-name of "Gilbert Chester", the new recruit created those popular characters Gilbert and Eileen Hale.
Yes, indeed, Blake's stock was never so high as in that eventful year; but soon there was to come a change, gradual at first but becoming more marked as the years drifted by. The days of plenty were to slowly recede; a changing scene was to reveal the dismaying fact that the steady upward climb had been arrested and a slackening grip was ensuring only one thing — the decline of Sexton Blake!
3. The Decline of Sexton Blake
It was towards the end of the year 1922 that Sexton Blake followers first became acquainted with the work of a gifted young artist, named Eric R. Parker. The latter made his debut in UNION JACK No. 995, when he illustrated Andrew Murray's come-back story "EYES IN THE DARK", which featured Professor Kew, the Hon. John Lawless, and the Owl. Under this promising newcomer's hand, UNION JACK characters began to assume a definite shape — hitherto, illustrations depicting Blake, Tinker and the rest might have been those of anybody; but the advent of E. R. Parker changed all that — the famous detective, Rymer, Plummer etc., became as easy to pick out as if they had been photographed; the caption beneath the drawing was not necessary to identify the character portrayed — sure sign of the true artist. Val Reading, by popular vote, was considered next best to E.R.P., and he submitted good material over a long period; but neither he nor E.R.P. put in such fine work as H. M. Lewis in the earlier days. Lewis's work deteriorated to such a marked extent in later years — the cause of which it is difficult to say — that it was small wonder his illustrations were seldom utilised in the UNION JACK after the war. T. W. Holmes, a regular contributor before the war, was never heard of after it; his drawings were neat without being particularly outstanding in any way. Harry Lane, Arthur Jones and Kenneth Brookes completed a team well-varied in style and talent.
An interesting conception was that of the character of Gunga Dass, an Indian crook, who was introduced by H. Gregory Hill. An utterly ruthless type, he gave Blake some of the toughest struggles of his long and eventful career. Adrian Steele, a newspaper correspondent, was Andrew Murray's next contribution to the pages of Blake's papers, and little did it occur to anyone at Fleetway House that this was to prove the author's last creation. There was also a slight increase in Sexton Blake's household, when Oliver Merland, the monocled author of "THE FACE IN THE FILM" (S.B.L. No. 281, First Series), introduced another young assistant to Blake in Topper, a lad of about Tinker's own age.
Just before the resignation of Bonar Law, which let in Mr. Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister, two characters were introduced who were to prove very popular for the next ten years or so. They were Gilbert and Eileen Hale, handsome ex-public schoolboy, and his pert and pretty wife; and whilst, as a combination, they were neither clever enough nor ruthless enough to have Blake going all out against them, nevertheless, there were occasions when they proved themselves thorough nuisances in the persistency with which they intruded into his investigations. Blake was apt to regard them with good-humoured tolerance rather than with any feelings of animosity.
Following close upon the death of Cecil Hayter came that of Andrew Murray, who died from paralysis. The latter's last story was published in the UNION JACK early in 1924, entitled "THE SIGN OF THE YELLOW DRAGON", and that was the last time Blake readers heard of the Owl. But the ranks of the crook fraternity were in no way diminished, for the Black Eagle came along to slip into the shoes of the departed. The year 1924 was, of course, notable for the reason that Gwyn Evans made his debut as a Sexton Blake writer.
A disturbing feature about that time was the importation of crime fiction into this country from the USA. These magazines began to trickle through in small quantities at first, but had grown to quite alarming proportions by the 1930's, and, as may be imagined, English publishing firms took some very hard knocks as a result. Under that growing avalanche from America both the UNION JACK and SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY did not escape unscathed; in the case of the former there was a definite falling-off, and for the first time the decline of Sexton Blake was made apparent. That state of affairs was lamentable, for whilst the Blake publications contained clean and wholesome matter, the atmosphere of the American type was altogether different. Emphasis — and far too much of it — was made on sex. The purely adventurous type of story set in countries overseas, stories that almost brought the smell of the soil and heady odours of its nature life to the nostrils, in the imagination of its reader — the Lobangu and Huxton Rymer tales are are admirable example — were on the way out. In their place was drifting the American model, in which there was that akin to the perfumed atmosphere of milady's boudoir.
There were other distractions too, which had the effect of diverting the mind from the printed word. In November 1922 broadcasting from the famous London station 2L0 on top of Marconi House in the Strand began; and as the radio entered the homes, of more and more families it was only natural that a number of readers would feel compelled to devote their limited leisure time to their new love. By 1926 the tempo of our national life had been speeded up considerably, the new sport of Greyhound Racing was attracting bigger gates with each meeting, and dancing had never been so popular. Then, a little later, talkies began, and when the first all-talking picture, The Singing Fool, was shown in London, every attendance record was broken. It was another nail in the coffin of the old boys' papers, for by now teenagers had so many other interests to occupy their minds that there was left little inclination to follow further the adventures of those heroes who had thrilled them in their schooldays.
That inflexible grip which Sexton Blake had for so long sustained on the imagination of his public was visibly relaxed, and in a desperate effort to restore him to his former pinnacle, the Confederation series — the most popular Blake series ever — were re-printed in the UNION JACK. But times had greatly changed since 1919, and the old appeal had gone; the reception afforded them was but lukewarm, so the venture could hardly be described as a successful one.
As Blake's popularity waned, new authors were commissioned in an effort to infuse new life, for the old team, if their work was anything to go by, were becoming jaded, and seemed in need of a prolonged rest away from their typewriters. An interesting new arrival was Gerald Verner, the famous novelist and creator of Mr. Budd, of Scotland Yard, who wrote all his Blake stories under the nom-de-plume of Donald Stuart, A most welcome recruit, for his work was always of a high standard. Fleetway House was mourning the loss of one of its great personalities, John Nix Pentelow, at the time Gerald Verner made his bow as a chronicler of Blake's exploits.
Three years later William Murray Graydon, who next to G. H. Teed wrote more words of Sexton Blake than any other writer, announced his retirement. Over 30 years of continuous writing had left visible signs on the veteran author, whose later work clearly indicated to what extent his early enthusiasm and pride in his work had dimmed. A number of the old characters had dropped out by that time, but in 1930 that popular and unusual creation, Mr. Preed, the solicitor-detective, came along to assist Sexton Blake in the ever-ending battle against crime.
The SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY was still progressing fairly satisfactorily, but the UNION JACK had now to combat a now weekly rival in THE THRILLER, a really fine paper, which printed stories by writers whose names in the fiction world will never be forgotten, men such as Edgar Wallace, Sydney Horler and Leslie Charteris, and was finding the going anything but smooth. New ideas were needed, for it was clear that drastic changes would have to be made if THE THRILLER'S challenge to the UNION JACK'S position of being the best detective-thriller weekly on the market was to be resisted. In H. W. Twyman, the UNION JACK had an editor who was fully alive to the danger into which the paper was drifting, and, in an effort to steer clear, he conceived the Proud Tram Series, and invited six of his most popular writers to take part in a friendly competition, in which he asked them to explain how a heart failure victim and the unconscious form of Sexton Blake happened to be on top of an empty tramcar in a North London tram depot. A broken window; a rolled-up banner on the floor and a fireman's helmet were other things that they were asked to account for in a story giving a properly feasible explanation of the circumstances that brought the whole thing about. The six authors who readily accepted this sporting challenge were G. H. Teed, Anthony Skene, Robert Murray, Gilbert Chester, Gwyn Evans and Donald Stuart. Robert Murray, however, found the task beyond his powers, and a last minute S.O.S, was sent out to E. S. Brooks to make up the team, the explanation being that the Confederation author had caught influenza. Coming along with something better than anything he had ever done for the NELSON LEE LIBRARY, E. S. Brooks romped home a comfortable winner when readers were asked to submit their opinion as to which one of the six had contributed the best story.
Less than a year later, the UNION JACK was no more, and in its place we had DETECTIVE WEEKLY, a much bigger paper, with a black and yellow cover.
New authors were continually introduced in the S.B. Library, among them being John Creasey, author of the stories featuring the Toff; John G. Brandon, John Hunter, Richard Goyne, Barry Perowne and George Dilnot, all best-seller writers.
In January 1934 reprinted stories began in the S.B.L., one a month being published up to the time of the second world War, during which time the circulation of D.W. dropped week by week, and Sexton Blake too, was dropped as a consequence for about two years, before being reinstated with a succession of reprinted stories from the old U.J. and S.B.L., the latter being in abridged form. But D.W. went from bad to worse, and the end saw it publishing modernised versions of Blake stories which had been printed in the U.J, as long ago as 1912.
For eight months following Hitler's march into Poland the S.B.L. went on as before; then in June 1940 the monthly output was reduced to two volumes. That year was quite a disastrous one for Sexton Blake, for following closely on the deaths of G. H. Teed and Gwyn Evans, five more of his authors passed on in rapid succession. They were John G. Brandon, Walter Edwards, Ladbroke Black, Allan Blair and Robert Murray. Arthur S. Hardy, who had contributed at somewhat lengthy intervals, was another who died at about that time.
Making a welcome return during the war, following an absence of eight years, Jack Lewis endeavoured to reinstate his famous character, Leon Kestrel: but it was no part of editorial policy that the old favourites should be revived, and so, after one solitary story, the master-mummer was allowed to drift back into obscurity.
When the war was over and publishers found paper easier to come by, the stream of crime fiction became polluted with some of the most poisonous matter ever to come from the printing presses of this country, for what the Americans had printed in their magazines in the thirties as was as nothing compared to the trash some English publishing firms began to circulate all over the country. But if these books ever offered a serious challenge to the S.B.L. it was beaten off, for today the latter goes ahead whilst police intervention is rapidly and at long last driving the other from the field. Nevertheless, Sexton Blake's position in this Elizabethan age is a precarious one; he can only look back on the days of his past glory, for the future seems dim, indeed, for him.
Readers who have followed his adventures since those fruitful days have the uneasy feeling that the days of their hero, in tales in the form in which they are at present featured, are numbered. In fictional form he battles against crime; in fact he fights a desperate battle against the times, the outcome of which only the future can decide.
Will Sexton Blake survive?
© Walter Webb