by Donald Stuart
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Is a radio dramatisation suitable fodder for a Booksquawk review? Probably not, but I've been so busy recently that I've been hard pushed to get any book reviews written lately and really enjoyed listening to these recently rediscovered recordings of a BBC radio adaptation of my favourite fictional crimefighter. First broadcast in August 1967, the series only ran for 17 episodes before coming to an end in December of the same year. The recordings, thought lost for many decades have recently turned up (probably in someone's shed). This isn't the first radio series of Blake's adventures and his stories had been thrilling generations of readers by the late sixties. Indeed, devoted fans of the detective will point out that the 1950s and 1960s could hardly be called Sexton Blake's golden years. The outlandish villains and often-fantastical adventures of the 1920s and 1930s had been replaced with grittier, more realistic scenarios. However, whilst Donald Stuart's radio dramas may lack zany felons such as Zenith the Albino or Waldo the Wonderman, they make up for it by being tight, satisfying little thrillers.
The late William Franklyn stars as Blake, giving the detective a laconic yet confident manner. Blake's natural reserve and stiff upper lip contrasts wonderfully with the energy and wit of his youthful assistant Tinker, played with great Cockney charm by David Gregory. Other well-established characters such as the dull-witted Detective Inspector Coutts and Blake's long-suffering secretary Paula Dane make regular appearances and give the two lead characters the opportunity to exchange some fast-paced and pleasingly chirpy banter. Considering their age, the recordings are of a pretty good quality. There are a couple of moments where one gets the impression that a spot of remastering would have been of use but generally everything is crisp and clear.
There are actually three double-CD collections currently available, so here's a quick rundown of them.
“Liliesfor the Ladies and Other Stories” contains the first three episodes from the series. The titular “Lilies for the Ladies” sees Blake investigating the suspicious deaths of a number of wealthy high society women. “The Sin-Eater” is a complex tale where Blake is faced with a baffling series of cryptic messages written on playing cards whilst “Bluebeard's Key” sees the detective on the trail of a serial killer.
The second collection, “The Vampire Moon and Other Stories” offers up some slightly faster-paced tales than the first and is my personal favourite of the three. “The Vampire Moon” sees Blake investigating the mysterious death of a secret agent in a Chinese restaurant whose last words hint at a terrifying conspiracy that threatens the world. “The Fifth Dimension” has the detective scratching his head over a truly bizarre case of a disappearing man and “First Class Ticket to Nowhere” sees Blake and his team of intrepid crime-busters squaring up to an international ring of drug smugglers.
The third collection, “The Eight Swords and Other Stories” offers the best value for money with four entertaining stories. “The Eight Swords” has Blake investigate the poisoning of a rather unpleasant actress at a hair salon. “A Murder of Crows” revolves around the pursuit of a serial killer who only targets men called George Crow. “Double and Quit” is a cracking Cold War tale of espionage where Blake is recruited as a special agent and forced to go undercover in a prison. Finally, “You Must Be Joking” sees Blake on the trail of a killer who taunts his victims with chilling limericks informing them of their fate.
All three collections come with a bonus recording of a very early Sexton Blake drama from 1930. Being one of the earliest surviving examples of a radio drama, one shouldn't expect too much from “Murder on the Portsmouth Road”. The sound quality of this bonus story is so poor that it's a struggle to understand exactly what is going on. Even if you do finally get to grips with the scratchy recording, the paper-thin plot doesn't really stand up to the more sophisticated narratives of the other stories on the CDs. As a period piece, it's a pleasant little distraction but is unlikely to be listened to more than once.
The BBC and AudioGo should be commended for these releases. Whilst the somewhat dated radio dramatisations of a forgotten Sherlock Holmes clone are undoubtedly aimed at a (very) niche market, they are undeniably enjoyable and well worth tracking down if you're looking for something a little bit different.
Hereward L.M. Proops