I think I'm currently "breaking the back" of the project, so I hope to resume activity here pretty soon.
In the meantime, this is why I'm a Blake obsessive:
There was a time when everyone in the UK knew who Sexton Blake was. His name was deeply engrained in the British psyche; it signified everything we thought our empire stood for: honour, courage, strength, charity, moral righteousness and justice. Hindsight is rarely kind to empires; nor has it been kind to Blake. At best, he's been relegated to the status of a second-rate Sherlock Holmes; at worst, he's been forgotten.
The Sherlock Holmes comparison was always erroneous. Blake is nothing like Holmes. It's true that from 1904 he lived on Baker Street, occasionally wore a threadbare and acid-stained dressing gown, puffed on a pipe and sank into long silent bouts of analysis ... but these are mere details. Yes, Blake has an extraordinary talent for interpreting the obscurest of clues and for building a case on the merest of trifles but this was rarely the focus of his stories. The fact is, while Holmes was contemplatively drawing the strings over his violin, Blake was getting knocked over the head, shot at, poisoned, chained inside slowly filling water tanks, and challenged by the most bizarre villains ever to threaten the empire. There's more of Indiana Jones than of Sherlock Holmes in Sexton Blake.
Furthermore, he was far and away more popular than Holmes. During the course of eighty years or so, over two hundred authors hammered out thousands of Blake adventures that were eagerly devoured by people of every age and in all walks of life. The word 'hammered' is appropriate; the Blake writers, in general, lived hand to mouth ... if they didn't get a story delivered, they didn't eat. The Blake tales were not created with literary merit in mind. They were produced purely and simply to sell, which meant they had to entertain. The authors had no time to dwell on psychological motivations or cultural insights; they just used the world around them as inspiration. Since Sexton Blake's popularity coincided with the most dramatic years of the 20th century, this means that the stories have now become a fascinating source of social history. We can see in them the arrival of new technologies and how they altered the day to day lives of ordinary people. We can see that 'politically incorrect' attitudes were once not only acceptable but positively encouraged. We can see how Britain was deeply divided by the class system. Furthermore, we can get a feel for the profound upheavals caused by the two world wars.
So, while it may not have been consciously put there by the authors, time has added a great deal of depth to the Blake tales and, while enjoying them, you might feel yourself raising an eyebrow now and then as you glimpse, amidst the mad adventuring, little snippets of a previous reality.
All of this would have astonished the man who created Sexton Blake.
His name was Harry Blyth, though he wrote as 'Hal Meredeth'. Born in 1852, he worked as a freelance journalist during a time when the publishing industry was booming and a profusion of new periodicals were flooding the market. One of the most popular of these, The Strand Magazine, featured Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes ... and he was a big hit. The editors of other story papers hoped to cash in on this success, so a veritable mob of fictional sleuths were soon prowling the foggy streets of London. Publishing magnate Alfred Harmsworth, who was building his Amalgamated Press empire on the back of a plethora of cheap but popular periodicals, commissioned Blyth to add another detective to the ranks and, in December 1893, Sexton Blake made his début. By coincidence, that very same week, The Strand Magazine published 'The Final Problem', the story in which Conan Doyle prematurely killed off Holmes.
If Sherlock's fans hoped for a replacement, the Sexton Blake they met in The Halfpenny Marvel was not it. In 'The Missing Millionaire' he is almost entirely devoid of character and plods through a tale which, by any standards, is virtually unreadable. Blyth's six subsequent stories are no better. Their plots are illogical, disjointed and wholly reliant on coincidences. It's little wonder that Amalgamated Press quickly passed Sexton Blake to other authors. In February 1898, Blyth died of typhoid. He never saw his creation's rise to super stardom.
The first few years were slow. Blake, in the hands of writers such as William De Montmerency, William Shaw Rae, Percy Bishop and Alec Pearson, had no clear identity, no fixed abode and no permanent assistant. Then, in 1904, everything started to click into place when one of the great early Blake authors, W. J. Lomax, introduced Tinker, the cheeky young cockney boy who would forever remain at the detective's side in a prototype Batman and Robin relationship. Another of the very best early authors, William Murray Graydon, then audaciously moved the Blake household to Baker Street and introduced a landlady, Mrs Bardell (whose character would be expanded to great effect by later authors), along with a highly intelligent bloodhound, Pedro.
With The Union Jack story paper as his primary platform (though he continued to appear in other Amalgamated Press publications), the detective now went from strength to strength. Recurring characters began to appear: there were Scotland Yard detectives (often unwilling allies); Sir Richard Losely and Lobangu, who joined Blake and Tinker for exotic adventures in Africa; and George Marsden Plummer, the first of Blake's many super-villain opponents. The stories, too, became more cohesive, tending to be themed around Blake taking on various roles in order to investigate a case. He would become a schoolmaster or a postman, join the circus or the army, work in a coal mine or on the railways. These early tales now offer a fascinating glimpse of a way of life that has long passed.
During this same period, several Sexton Blake stage plays began touring the country and later, when cinemas appeared, Blake thrilled audiences during the silent era. The general public, it seemed, had developed a taste for Sexton Blake.
In the lead up to World War I, more writers adopted the character and the stories began to change, improving by leaps and bounds. The emphasis was now on Blake's battle against spies and other threats to national security. More super-villains joined the cast: Dr. Huxton Rymer, Ezra Q. Maitland, Leon Kestrel, the Council of Eleven, Count Ivor Carlac, Professor Kew, Aubrey Dexter, and Wu Ling and the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle. Blake, Tinker and Pedro found themselves at the centre of countless intrigues, battling against the odds with stiff upper lips and an unquestioning faith in the might and right of the British empire.
In 1915, defying the paper shortages, Amalgamated Press launched The Sexton Blake Library (SBL). These novellas were published at an average rate of four a month (it went up to five for a while) which, when taken with the weekly issue of The Union Jack plus Blake's appearances in other periodicals such as Dreadnought, The Penny Pictorial, The Penny Popular, The Boys' Journal and The Boys' Friend, gave the public a huge amount of reading material. All of it was devoured with an enthusiasm that makes the present day Harry Potter craze seem entirely insignificant.
The covers of the first 566 issues of the SBL (and many of the illustrations inside The Union Jack) were drawn by an artist named Arthur Jones. While by no means the finest draughtsman, Jones had the knack of creating a brooding and sinister atmosphere which distinguishes the early SBLs. Unfortunately, neither he nor any of the other illustrators of the period possessed the ability to define the detective's physical appearance. It wasn't until Jones was superseded by Eric Parker in 1922 that Blake got a recognisable face. Parker, who was technically superb and wonderfully imaginative, gave him a tall, slender and long-limbed figure with a lean, thin-lipped countenance and trademark receding-at-the-temples hair. With Parker's artwork now gracing the SBL and the new colour covers of The Union Jack, and with the very best of the Sexton Blake authors all present and correct ― including G. H. Teed, George N. Philips, William Murray Graydon's son Robert, Gwyn Evans and Edwy Searles Brooks ― the Blake saga entered its 'Golden Age'.
The detective now faced the most eccentric and deadly foes of his career. They came at him thick and fast in stories that often spanned multiple issues. There was Zenith the Albino, the aristocratic outsider who preyed on the society he could never feel a part of; The Three Musketeers, dangerous crooks who hid their cunning behind Bertie Wooster-style vacuousness; Doctor Satira, who ruled a secret city of ape men and controlled animals with pheromones; The Black Eagle, wrongly incarcerated on Devil's Island and out for vengeance; Miss Death, whose life was cut short by heart disease and who spent her last months indulging in a crime spree; Mr Mist, who discovered the secret of invisibility ... and many, many more.
At the forefront of this rogues gallery stood the Criminals' Confederation. Founded by the nondescript John Smith and later ruled by the dastardly dwarf, Mr Reece, the Confederation was a sort of villains' union whose story, in The Union Jack, lasted from 1919 to 1926. The series proved so popular that it was later republished in a revised form from 1931 to 1933.
Then, with The Union Jack at the height of its creative powers, Amalgamated Press made a terrible mistake. In 1933, one of its executives noted that the paper's circulation in Ireland was extremely low. This he blamed on its title. The words 'Union Jack', he claimed, did not sit well with the Irish. Somehow, this opinion planted a seed which rapidly took root and, to the dismay of the paper's admirers, The Union Jack was revamped and relaunched as Detective Weekly.
Eric Parker continued to provide the illustrations for a while but he was now severely limited by the new cover design which replaced the striking colours of The Union Jack with a bilious-looking yellow. This did little to attract customers and sales slumped dramatically. So did the standard of the stories. By issue 130, Sexton Blake was dropped from the paper. He would reappear in it from 1937 onwards but only in shortened versions of earlier tales. This was definitely not what readers wanted. In 1940, Detective Weekly folded.
The old story papers were disappearing; transforming themselves into comics. From 1939, Sexton Blake featured in strip form in The Knockout. Up to the late 1940s, these adventures, while obviously more juvenile, were wonderfully entertaining, especially those written by Percy Clarke and drawn by Alfred Taylor, which told of Blake's role in the Second World War with his ally Hoo Sung and his amazing invention, the Rolling Sphere. Unfortunately, over the subsequent years, the quality of the strips steadily deteriorated, until eventually ending in 1960.
Meanwhile, over in The Sexton Blake Library, something rather strange was happening. As Britain struggled through the 1940s and on into the bleak 50s, Blake's adventures became startlingly mundane. Instead of battling crooked masterminds in exotic locations, he began to focus on the 'little crimes' experienced by ordinary people. Stories appeared with titles such as 'The Case of the Night Lorry Driver', 'The Mystery of the Missing Angler' and 'The Holiday Camp Mystery'. For many readers the disappearance of the super-villains marked the nadir of the great detective's career.
On reflection these tales may have been unfairly judged. While not as extravagant and boisterous as the earlier stories, they offer a sympathetic glimpse into the daily trials faced by real people during a desperate period of history; the financial and emotional pressures, the temptations born of post-war austerity. Viewed from this perspective, they reveal just how deeply British society had changed since Sexton Blake was created.
Nevertheless, by the mid-fifties, the franchise was in crisis. The newly appointed editor of The Sexton Blake Library, W. Howard Baker, took a look at the sales figures and concluded that it was a case of 'do or die'. It was time to shake things up. So in 1956, in a story entitled 'Frightened Lady', readers were shocked to find that Tinker (whose real name was now revealed to be Edward Carter) had been somewhat displaced by a sexy new assistant, Paula Dane. Furthermore, Blake no longer operated out of Baker Street but from an office located in Berkeley Square where, a few issues later, he was joined by office workers Miss Pringle and Marion Lang.
This 'New Order' SBL was an altogether tougher and more cynical proposition. Gone were the super-villains, gone were the Eric Parker covers, gone were the stiff upper lips ... and gone were a great many readers who couldn't adapt to the change. This was not their Blake! Despite this, the publication attracted a new audience with its trashier plots and occasional forays into science fiction and horror. It eventually changed to full-blown paperback format in '65 and staggered on until the early 70s, when low sales finally killed it off.
In 1968, a Sexton Blake TV serial began on ITV, with Laurence Payne as the detective. This proved popular and ran for three seasons. It also spawned a new Blake comic strip in The Valiant, though this was of a generally low standard. However, in selling TV rights to ITV, Fleetway (as Amalgamated Press had become) accidentally gave away more than it intended. The subsequent copyright problems, combined with dwindling public interest, spelled the end for the great detective. One final (and dire) BBC TV serial aired in 1978, with an accompanying novel, and then ... nothing.
Sexton Blake vanished.
It could be argued that the decline and fall of Sexton Blake exactly parallels that of the British Empire. Maybe, by the 70s, when British institutions and statesmen were freely lampooned and when many were revealed to be rotten to the core, there simply weren't any standards left to uphold and thus no further significance to the character. Honour, courage, strength, charity, moral righteousness and justice were no longer relevant; no longer perceived as essential qualities of the British psyche.
I, and a few other dedicated enthusiasts are struggling to bring Blake back. is first new "officially sanctioned" novel was published in 2014 (it was written by some guy named Mark Hodder) and there are other stories "in the works," including one by Michael Moorcock, who started his illustrious career with a Blake take back in 1962 (the year I was born!). Whether they'll ever see the light of day depends on audience interest.
That's why I need to get BLAKIANA back online!