THERE’S TOO MUCH SEXTON BLAKE!
Of all fictional British detectives, none has had so many adventures published as Sexton Blake, none bar Sherlock Holmes has been so famous, and none has fallen so rapidly from such a height into such obscurity. Were all his cases still in print, you’d be faced with more than 4,000 of them, written by 200 or so authors.
How on earth would you choose which of the stories to read?
By writer? One of G. H. Teed’s exotic, globe-trotting yarns, perhaps? Maybe an eccentric, madcap case recounted by Gwyn Evans? A taut John Hunter thriller? One of Martin Thomas’s science fiction or horror-tinged tales?
How about choosing by publication? A snappy little mystery from ANSWERS or PENNY PICTORIAL magazine? A medium-length case from the UNION JACK story paper? A lengthier one from THE SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY? Or a comic strip from KNOCKOUT?
Unless you’ve spent years and a fortune collecting Blakes, you’re unlikely to ever face such a dilemma. I, however, have done and do, and this is how I deal with it: I pick by era.
Blake’s extraordinarily long and unbroken publication history began in 1893 and ended in 1970 (more or less. To be absolutely accurate: no material was released in 1964; old stories were anthologised post-1970; the BBC’s misjudged Blake TV show was novelised in 1978; and a new novel, by yours truly, was published in 2013).
Here’s how that lifetime’s-worth of adventures can be divided into eras and what makes each distinct:
The Victorian Era (1893 to 1903)
These are Sexton Blake’s earliest cases, before he teamed up with his cheeky young assistant, Tinker, and acquired Pedro, the remarkable bloodhound. They are indisputably “penny dreadfuls,” with the emphasis entirely on “dreadful.” The writing is risible and the plots, such as they are, are absurdly reliant on astonishing coincidences. This period satisfies curiosity but not much else. It’s interesting to meet the detective’s pre-Tinker sidekicks, one of whom is a bowler hat-wearing gorilla! As for Blake himself, he’s a nondescript, bumbling idiot!
The Edwardian Era (1904 to 1910)
In one of the most audacious moves in the annals of crime fiction, author William Murray Graydon gave Blake a permanent residence … in Baker Street! With the detective slouching around his new home wrapped in an acid-stained red dressing gown, it’s little wonder that some considered him a cheap Holmes knock-off. However, in character, which was well-defined by the end of this period, he was very different, being tougher and more liable to take direct physical action. With Tinker and Pedro joining the household, the “Blake template” was now set … but what of this era’s stories? They can best be described as “Blake takes a role,” being notable for the number of cases in which he goes undercover in the various industries of the day. Sexton Blake: Fireman; Beefeater; Acrobat; Aeronaut; Photographer; Fisherman; Collier; Steward; Railwayman; Watchman; Butler; Footballer; Doctor; Shopwalker; Lumberjack … the list goes on … and on.
The First World War Era (1911-1918)
The jingoistic years! Unsurprisingly, this is where you’ll find an awful lot of “Brits are superior and foreigners are untrustworthy” attitudes. It’s Blake in full-on propaganda mode … and it’s fascinating. You’ll get a better sense of social history from these yarns than you will from any textbook. Also, a great deal more excitement, as this is authentic Indiana Jones-style stuff! Blake and Tinker battle with spies, traitors, profiteers, and, of course, the dastardly “Hun.” It’s amazing to see how many years before the war people knew it was coming. It’s also amazing to see how many of Blake’s cases just prior to the conflict concerned missing heirs, stolen family heirlooms, forged wills, and other problems experienced by aristocrats … and how many cases afterwards didn’t. 1913 is a year of particular significance, as it saw the emergence of a new breed of opponent, which led to …
The Golden Era (1919-1933)
Blake at his best! The greatest writers! The defining illustrator (Eric Parker)! And super-crooks! This is proto-Batman and Robin. Sure, Blake’s identity was no secret and he didn’t wear a silly costume, but the villains he battled were every bit as wild and eccentric as those rank amateurs, the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, et al. Dear reader, I give you: Dr Satira, who can control animals with pheromones! Monsieur Zenith the Albino, fallen prince of Eastern Europe who commits crimes to counter his ennui, who doesn’t care if he lives or dies! Huxton Rymer, brilliant surgeon, drug addict, adventurer in exotic climes! Marie Galante, voodoo queen! Mr Mist, the invisible man! Count Bonalli aka The Owl, who can see clearly in pitch darkness! Waldo the Wonder Man, impervious to pain, stronger than an ox! The Criminals’ Confederation, spanning the globe, overseen by the wicked Mr. Reece! Leon Kestrel, the arch impersonator! Prince Menes, reincarnated priest of Ra! Prince Wu Ling, every bit as menacing as Fu Manchu! Paul Cynos, sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit, his whole family out for revenge! So many more! So much fun!
The Hard-Boiled Era (1934-1938)
When the UNION JACK story paper folded in ‘33, the colourful crooks faded away, and Blake turned his attention to more ordinary crimes and criminals. Murders, thefts, smuggling, swindles, and gang warfare became the mainstay. There’s a lot of variety, and the more outlandish adventures are still in evidence, but with many writers having been lost during the war, a new generation has taken over, and the tone has changed, becoming tougher and more realistic. This era offers remarkable insight into British life prior to WW2. There’s a palpable sense of social change, of the working class gaining an identity while the nobility loses its shine.
The Second World War Era (1939-1946)
Where the First World War stories were gung-ho, Johnny Foreigner-bashing affairs, those from this period focus much more on the Home Front. They feel oddly introspective. Blake again exposes spies, tracks down missing men, and destroys schemes to profit from the conflict, but the second conflict is much more of a backdrop than the first was, and the emphasis is on ordinary people being affected by crime. That said, this era also marks Blake’s first appearance in comic strip form, and those tales in KNOCKOUT, while being juvenile, are absolutely wild! Unlike in THE SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY, which by now was the only vehicle for the written stories, Blake of the comics was on the Front Line, battling the enemy in the Rolling Sphere, the Flying Disc, and other science fictional contraptions.
The Domestic Era (1947-1955)
For a long time, this was regarded as Blake’s leanest period. The stories are “kitchen sink” dramas that reflect the post-war depression. Older readers missed the flashy and freaky action of the glamorous ‘twenties and decried the dreary realism. However, all these years later, it’s an era ripe for reappraisal. Again, it offers much deeper social insights than its authors ever intended, which can be utterly spellbinding for the modern reader. There is, however, a noticeable indecisiveness. Those writers who’d made it through the war were churning out the by now stale old formula, while the newcomers were trying to make it grittier, but perhaps feeling stymied by editorial policies. As a result, there are many gems but also quite a lot of dross. Unfortunately, the quality of the comic strips plummeted, too.
The New Order (1956-1970)
Bang! When W. Howard Baker took over editorship of THE SEXTON BLAKE LIBRARY in ‘56’, sales were in the doldrums. Plainly, it was time for an update. And, wow, did he deliver! Seemingly overnight, Blake was transformed into a suave James Bondalike, Tinker took a back seat in favour of platinum blonde “dolly bird” Paula Dane, and the stories became a whole lot edgier, sexier, and in some cases, science fiction-ier. They even annoyed the government’s arch defender of morals, Mary Whitehouse! The older fans were dismayed and flooded the editorial offices with letters demanding the return of “their” Blake. At face value, it’s easy to understand why, as there’s a sense of “jumping on the bandwagon whilst throwing the baby out with the bathwater” about this period. The passage of time has, however, given some depth to the superficial gloss, and if you want a slice of the Swinging Sixties, there’s a great deal to enjoy here.
As you can see, by dividing the enormous Blake output into these distinct eras, stories can be chosen by “flavour” rather than by author or periodical. This makes it a lot easier, providing, of course, that you can actually find the increasingly scarce publications. If you have the money, auctions are your best bet. eBay is okay for the later material but the early stuff doesn’t show up very often. In Rebellion’s new anthologies, a few stories are cherry-picked from each period.
BIO: Mark Hodder is the Philip K. Dick Award-winning author of the Burton & Swinburne series of SF novels, beginning with THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK. He’s been reading and collecting Sexton Blake stories for twenty-five years, and is the creator and curator of the BLAKIANA website (http://www.mark-hodder.com/blakiana/). His novel THE SILENT THUNDER CAPER (2013) was the first officially sanctioned Sexton Blake novel to be published in 35 years. He currently has a couple of SF novels in development and is compiling Rebellion Publishing’s new Blake anthologies. Mark lives in Valencia, Spain, with his Spanish partner and their 6-year-old twins.