edited by David Stuart Davies
560 pages, Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I make no secret of my love for pulp fiction. A number of my reviews have touched upon the subject and my own writing is heavily influenced by the pulps. Although most readers of pulp magazines will be familiar with the heroes of the American magazines such as The Shadow, Jim Anthony and Doc Savage, the British pulps are often overlooked. "Union Jack" magazine was probably the most popular of the early British pulps and ran from the 1880s until 1933. The most popular character of the magazine was ace detective Sexton Blake. His popularity was so great that in 1905 the magazine became entirely dedicated to printing his adventures. Although few are now aware of the character's importance, at one time he was the king of British pulps. Thousands of Sexton Blake stories were published and he enjoyed adventures on the stage, the radio and the television.
Often dismissed as a poor man's Sherlock Holmes, Blake does have many similarities to Conan Doyle's more famous creation, not least the Baker Street address. However, Sexton Blake's adventures tended to be more action-packed than Holmes' more cerebral investigations. Fist fights, chases and damsels in distress abound and what Blake's adventures lack in subtlety they more than make up for in sheer breathless entertainment. These aren't gritty dramas or great character studies; they are fast-paced romps where the dastardly schemes of cackling criminals are solved by a cunning mixture of British pluck, razor-sharp insight and the odd knuckle-sandwich.
“The Casebook of Sexton Blake” is a collection of seven Sexton Blake stories from a variety of different writers. Published as part of the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series, this collection is great value for money. The selection of stories shows the broad range of adventures Blake's fans enjoyed. “The Slave Market!” by Cecil Hayter finds Blake rescuing an old school friend in Africa. The story introduces Lobangu, the Zulu tribesman who returned in a number of other adventures. The story is a rousing adventure owing a lot to Rider Haggard and is perhaps included in this collection to highlight the fact that Sexton Blake was no mere clone of Sherlock Holmes. W.J. Lomax's “A Football Mystery” is a more sedate piece where Blake and his plucky young assistant Tinker investigate a team who suspiciously win every match they play, humiliating the British football leagues. “The Man from Scotland Yard” by Ernest Sempill is probably the weakest story in the collection but is noteworthy because it introduced George Marsden Plummer, one of Blake's longest-living arch-enemies. William Murray Graydon's “The Law of the Sea” is an amusing piece which opens with Blake and Tinker surviving the sinking of a cruise liner that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Titanic. The rest of the story is a cracking little tale of betrayal, bloodshed and bravery against the odds. “The Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle” by G.H. Teed is a typical “yellow peril” tale where Blake comes up against the villainous Prince Wu Ling. Though monstrously politically incorrect, the tale is almost embarrassingly good fun and should be read with tongue planted firmly in cheek. “A Case of Arson” by Robert Murray Graydon (the son of William Murray Graydon) puts Tinker to the sidelines and gives Blake the opportunity to show off his powers of deduction as he solves a brilliantly complicated insurance scam. G.H. Teed returns for the final story in the book, “The Black Eagle”. Though the shortest of the tales, this story is a fantastic, fast paced revenge drama, which is probably the highlight of the collection.
Although the seven stories in “The Casebook of Sexton Blake” give the reader a taster of the wide variety of the detective's adventures, the collection could have been improved with the inclusion of a few more of Blake's better-known adversaries such as Waldo the Wonderman or Zenith the Albino. Another aspect of Blake's outings that distanced him from Sherlock Holmes was the more fantastical nature of his adventures. Indeed, some of Blake's more inventive adversaries can be seen as the precursors of the comic book super-villain and their absence from the collection is a real shame. However, this collection is a reasonably-priced and very accessible introduction to a sadly forgotten British icon. These stories aren't great literature but they are great fun. Well worth a look.
Hereward L.M. Proops