by W. O. G. Lofts

  • This article first appeared in COLLECTORS' DIGEST Vol.22 Issue 263 November 1968.

Sexton BlakeWilliam Murray Graydon had always an ambition to visit the home of his ancestors. Indeed, one of them could be traced right back to Charles I, when a Captain Graydon served with great distinction in His Majesty's army. When one of his books was due to be published in England, W. M. G. then took the opportunity to visit, so setting sail from America with his wife Pearl, son Robert, and younger daughter Rachael he landed in this country about 1898.

Victorian England, it should be mentioned, was a boys’ fiction writer’s paradise. Unlike the twenties and thirties remembered by the majority of collectors, when the Amalgamated Press Ltd and D. C. Thomson dominated the scene, many other large publishing firms were flourishing at this period such as Aldine's, Charles Shurey, and James Henderson to name only a few. A prolific writer could earn, and especially with the skill of Graydon, almost as much as they could write. There was no question that any material would be rejected. Competition of getting the best writers for publishing firms was too fierce in the fear of upsetting a contributor by turning down his work.

Although returning to the USA for shortish periods at the turn of the century W. M. G. in time decided that not only did the English way of life suit him, but the English market as well. Settling at Norfolk, he decided to make England his home, much to the great dismay of his lawyer/judge father, who in a way never forgave him for leaving the USA, but more about this later.

William Murray Graydon's output was really tremendous, as he wrote for almost every publishing firm, using the new invention, the Dictaphone, for hours on end. A keen student of geography he could write authentically about any country in the world, and his tales about the Congo and Siberia were tremendously popular with readers who longed to know more about the mysterious countries that were so much in the news at that period. "Sexton Blake in the Congo", one of his earliest efforts, which ran as a serial in the green BOYS FRIEND for six months, is still considered a classic story by many collectors as, in it, W. M. G. also expressed his own strong political views on Belgium's treatment of the natives.

Although like the majority of other writers he penned Sexton Blake stories, and had his own Scotland Yard man, Inspector Widgeon, he also created other detectives such as Carfax Baines; Gordon Fox; Abel Link; and Derek Clyde, but none of these ever caught on with the public and soon his whole output and interest was practically on the greatest detective of them all, Sexton Blake.

His first Blake yarn, incidentally, was in 1904 in the UNION JACK, and he laid claim shortly after this date to immortality by creating Mrs. Bardell and Pedro, two very important characters indeed in the Sexton Blake saga.

So much has been written in the past about the style of W. M. G.'s writings that I will not dwell long on it here. Although I am not a strong supporter of the clan who claim to tell a writer's style at once, I must admit that in his case, sometimes it is unmistakable. He usually made Tinker address Blake as "Governor" or "Sir," and the detective usually answered with "My Boy." He was fond of the word "vowed" and nearly always in expressions he used the phrase "A lump rose in his throat" or "choked with emotion." In short W. M. G. was the supreme master of melodrama, as Victor Colby of Australia so aptly phrased it in a recent article: "His stories were a world of swooning maidens, noble virtuous youths with lumps rising in their throats as they contemplated the wickedness of the world, and of wrong heirs living in abject poverty because of the machinations of a mixed bag of evil stepbrothers, uncles and usurpers generally."

His stories in the early days mostly started with a prologue, and other characters created by him were Fenlock Fawn, Basil Wicketshaw, Cavendish Doyle, Laban Creed and, last but not least, Matthew Quin the big game hunter. Apart from using his own name, he used the nom-de-plume of "Alfred Armitage" (sometimes spelt Armytage) mainly for his historical stories, and William Murray. There is no doubt that he used other names as well to cover his identity in other fields, but concrete proof is still to be ratified.

At his best W. M. G. was a very fine writer, and his historical stories are still collected and sought after today by enthusiasts. Unfortunately he sacrificed quality for quantity, by simply churning out his stories, and this probably caused him not to move with the times, by concentrating on the current trends of the boys fiction market. His writing style in the early 1920s was still of the period of the 1880s or earlier, or to be blunt, simply outdated. When H, W. Twyman took over the Union Jack in 1921, and was a man with fresh ideas and a modern outlook on life; he simply would not accept W. M. G's work, nor would many other editors — so an author who had been as prolific as the great Charles Hamilton gradually found his work "unsuitable", though Len Pratt of the Sexton Blake Library was far more charitable, and still accepted the odd S. B. L. yarn until the author retired from writing altogether about 1930.

W. M. G.'s father was a lawyer/judge and a very wealthy man, and coming into a small amount of money (certainly not as much as he would have got because he raised his father's displeasure at living in England) W. M. G. was able to live on the interest.

1940 saw him living down in Cornwall, where after his wife Pearl died during the early part of the last war, he became seriously ill. He recovered to some extent, and his daughter Rachel came and looked after him, but during the last two years of his life he practically never left his bed, where he eventually died on the 5th April 1946, aged 83.

After giving so much pleasure to millions of people it was a very sad ending to such a grand writer. Retaining his American citizenship always, W. M. G. was of average height, slim or wiry build, and with an auburn moustache. Of fresh complexion, he spoke like a country gentleman with no trace of an American accent.

Probably the reader may wonder why so far I have not mentioned Robert Murray Graydon, his son, who died even earlier in 1937. Never probably have a father and son been so different. But that is another story.

© W. O. G. Lofts