Sexton Blake
Created by Harry Blyth and a cast of thousands

SEXTON BLAKE was called the "prince of the penny dreadfuls" and "the office boys' Sherlock Holmes." He first came to life way back in 1893 in The Halfpenny Marvel, shortly after a certain Mr. Holmes toppled off Reichenbach Falls, and was often even more like Mr. Holmes than the original. He even lived -- Surprise, surprise! -- on Baker Street in London.

But, as the stories continued to spew out, he soon outgrew his influences. He gave up the bicycle he dashed about in, and acquired a Rolls. Although definitely a detective, Sexton preferred fighting mysterious cowled villains, complete with long barrelled Brownings and homes in ruined abbeys, of the Edgar Wallace tradition. The countless stories were always stronger on action rather than deduction.

He had a comical landlady called Mrs. Bardell and - to me at least - a not needed and irrelevant bloodhound called Pedro. He drove his Rolls at an incredible 20 mph rather than say "follow that hansom" and flew a plane over the English Channel a little earlier than Mr. Bleriot. His exploits took him not just though London and the Home Counties but to the Alps, Papua New Guinea, the Gobi Desert, and to outwitting efforts to have him consumed by man eating plants and being placed on moon rockets. He was assisted by a street smart Tinker Bell who drove cars, fought villains and thought independently, an early Archie Goodwin rather than an imitation Watson. And he reached the world through Lord Northcliffe, probably the first Press baron and his Amalgamated Press.

The first writer was a Harry Blyth and the hero was initially called Frank Blake. Who thought of changing "Frank" to "Sexton" is not known. Blyth received nine guineas for the first story, signed away all his rights to the character, and wrote about half a dozen stories before other pens took over. The stories took definite form about 1905 and were marketed by AP though weekly magazines. Though Northcliffe rose to being a power in the world, much of his fortune was due to the pennies and half pennies plunked down on newsagents' counters weekly for the story papers and comics that carried, among others, the exploits of Sexton Blake.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Blake took on near legend proportions in England and in some parts of what was then the Empire. The key persons involved were not only the writers but also three editors at AP - WH Back, Leonard Pratt and Harold Twyman. The publications included the Sexton Blake Weekly, the Union Jack and the Detective Weekly ("Starring Sexton Blake"). The 200 or so writers included Peter Cheyney, Gwyn Evans and Gordon Shaw. And the collection of super villains included Miss Death (whose mask was a silken skull), Prince Memes (prince apparently of the "white slave" market) and Dr. Cagliostro. A handful of the stories were wonderful, most sheer pulp and a reasonable number absolutely unreadable - and all with the strange glow that lights up the most terrible of pulp.

There were even, it seems, a few films in the 20s and 30s, though no one I know has admitted to ever having seen one.

Post WW II, there was a new Blake. In 1956, Bill Howard Baker took over as editor of SBW and heaved the tall, dark, slightly humourless manhunter out of the Golden Age and threw him into the Nuclear one, with shades of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Cowled villains were out, mean streets in. Blake now ran an international agency out of Berkely Square (the same London though), acquired a svelte secretary (Paula Dane) and was altogether less old world, more suave and more ruthless. There was still no sex, though the girls were more knowledgeable and there were the politest of hints about Paula Dane. Tinker Bell had next to no role barring gushing "how wonderful" in the closing scene and fortunately Pedro ceased to exist. There were some secret-agent-James-Bond style stories generally set in the war but by and large, the atmosphere was seedier, the girls a little flashier and the villains less romantic and more hard bitten. This phase continued into the mid sixties.

Strangely enough, these were the first Blake stories I read. Some of them were pretty good and I suppose they have a sort of Golden Age appeal to me and perhaps others. There are a number of books carrying collections from the earlier Golden Age but as far as I know none for the post WW II period. Blake petered out in the late sixties though later another modified version was briefly revived. Sex was now permitted among villains and sometimes among clients, girls giggled more often than seemed necessary. Of course, Sexton Blake and Ms. Dane remained immaculate and serene. This version does not seem to have done well and the few stories I have read were tawdry. Sexton Blake took final retirement in the late 1970s, a reign of some eighty years.

One thing remained common in all the versions. They remained solely action stories (which is not a bad thing in itself) and Blake never developed any significant personality traits, other than standard master detective/super-hero affectations. Tinker did in a few but Blake never had anything you could like or dislike or just recognise. This, I dare say, is common enough in pulp fiction.

If intellectual justification is what you need, there is always Dorothy L. Sayers. She wrote that the "significance (of the Sexton Blake stories) in popular literature would richly repay scientific investigation." And if scientific investigation of pulp is not quite your scene, you may remember that the editors believed in quantity, and let quality take care of itself. It's true, and a happy accident, that sometimes pretty good quality slipped through and, a great deal of the time, there was at least lights, action, drama.

****

FURTHERMORE...

Sexton Blake had a long life beyond the world of the printed word. He appeared on stage, screen, television, radio and even comics. The stories, with their serialized feel and non-stop action transferred well to most media.

NOVELS

SHORT STORIES

COLLECTIONS

TELEVISION

COMICS

Respectfully submitted by Probir. Further bibliographical data provided by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to David Liebert for the heads up.


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