Who is British fiction's greatest ever consulting detective?
The majority of people would probably say Sherlock Holmes. They would all be wrong. The winner of the accolade did live on Baker Street but he wasn't Holmes... He was Sexton Blake.
For most of the 20th Century, his name was known the length and breadth of Great Britain and far beyond. It even entered the language of the East End as cockney rhyming slang: Sexton Blake – 'fake'.
And while it's true that Sherlock Holmes was a publishing success, it's also true that Sexton Blake was a publishing phenomenon. There were just 64 Holmes stories but there were well-over 4,500 Blake tales written by at least 200 different authors. Contributors included cult wordsmiths like Jack Trevor Story, John Creasey and Michael Moorcock.
But who was Sexton Blake?
Origins of Sexton Blake
He was created in 1893 by a Scot named Harry Blyth who had been commissioned by Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe), founder of the Amalgamated Press (later Fleetway and later still, IPC); the man who gave us the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. Harmsworth wanted to produce cheap story papers to compete against the so-called 'penny dreadfuls'. The idea was to offer higher quality literature for the same price - or less. His first effort was The Halfpenny Marvel; a half-the-price but twice-as-good concept which, on reflection, turned out to be much-the-same-but-cheaper - a halfpenny dreadful.
With Arthur Conan Doyle's sleuth delighting readers of the much posher Strand Magazine, detectives were in vogue, so Harmsworth quite naturally wanted one for his new paper. Thus the commissioning of Harry Blyth, who presented him with a tale called 'The Missing Millionaire' featuring 'Frank Blake'. There are two versions of what happened next. Some say that an editorial decision, possibly by Harmsworth himself, ruled the name 'Frank' too run-of-the-mill and opted for the much more mysterious-sounding 'Sexton' instead. However, Blyth's son, Harry, disputed this, claiming that his father asked him which he preferred, 'Sexton Blake' or 'Gideon Barr' - and Sexton won.
The story was published on 20 December, 1893, in issue 6 of Halfpenny Penny... the very same month that Conan Doyle's 'The Final Problem' appeared and shocked Strand readers by sending Holmes tumbling over the Reichenbach Falls in the grip of Moriarty. This coincidence cast a shadow over Sexton Blake because, over the ensuing years, commentators would mistakenly consider him as an attempted replacement for Holmes. The early Blake stories prove this a fallacy; Blake was absolutely nothing like Holmes - he didn't live in Baker Street (that came later), he didn't look like Holmes (that came later too), and where Holmes used just his intellect, Blake used his brain, his fists, the occasional gun, and fast vehicles (a bicycle was considered a fast vehicle in the earliest tales).
The detective appeared in four issues of the Halfpenny Marvel - stories all penned by Blyth - and for the modern reader they are almost impossible to read. The plots depend on unbelievable coincidences while remarkable events tend to occur for no reason at all. During one adventure, a tower inexplicably explodes, prompting a character to say 'I must have dropped a match!' In another, a man escapes from captivity because the wall of the house in which he's imprisoned suddenly collapses, without explanation.
There was one reason, and one reason alone, why Sexton Blake survived these messy tales and went on to become an international superstar: when Harry Blyth sold the first tale, he also sold the rights... for a grand total of 9 guineas!
This allowed Amalgamated Press to give the character to other writers, and it was in their hands that the detective went on to greater glory. Blyth died of typhoid in 1889; by that point, Blake had transferred to Union Jack (affectionately known as UJ), the paper which, by 1905, would dedicate itself exclusively to his incredible exploits.
Up until 1904, the stories, now being written by a variety of authors (mainly William Shaw Rae), continued to be rather Victorian in tone, with much sentimentalism and ropey plotting. But in 1904, WH Black became editor of the UJ and gave it a much-needed shake up. The most important of these was the introduction of Tinker, Blake's boy-assistant. The detective had been given assistants before but none struck a chord the way Tinker did. The longest-lasting had been a Chinese youth named Wee-we... and with a name like that you can see why he didn't survive into the 20th Century. There had also been a bowler-hat-wearing ape called Griff who could only communicate by grunting and who hated the sight of uniformed policemen - which wasn't particularly helpful. In Tinker, though, Blake found a cheeky and good-humoured companion who was also resourceful, brave and handy in a brawl... and the readers found a character with whom they could identify.
Other changes came thick and fast. The detective moved to Baker Street (which is obviously to detectives what Fleet Street is to newspapers and Harley Street to doctors) and got himself a malapropism-prone landlady named Mrs Bardell ('Snake and kiddly pie for supper, Mr Blake?') and a huge bloodhound called Pedro who would get the detective out of many a tight corner. The stories also changed, becoming more attuned to the times, often involving current events such as the Klondike gold rush, the great Jamaican earthquake and the sinking of the Titanic.
Over the ensuing decade, the Blake-Tinker-Pedro trio rode an ever more powerful wave of popularity which led, in 1915, to the establishment of The Sexton Blake Library (SBL). These pocket books were published (mostly at a rate of four a month), practically without pause, for the next 53 years. They ran in conjunction with the tales appearing every week in Union Jack, as well as in many other publications, including The Boys' Friend, The Boys' Herald, Penny Popular, Penny Pictorial and Answers. Thousands upon thousands of words were being written about Sexton Blake and the public lapped them up.
By 1907, there were stage plays touring the country; and, not long after, short Blake films were among the first ever features to thrill audiences during the fledgling days of cinema.
The Golden Age
As the First World War loomed, the saga entered its 'Golden Age' with the introduction of a whole host of super-villains. First on the scene was George Marsden Plummer, a Scotland Yard detective who discovered that just two people - distant relatives - stood between him and the inheritance of a title (and the fortune that went with it). Naturally, he tried to bump off these obstructions and thus began a very long career on the wrong side of the law.
Other notables followed thick and fast: Leon Kestrel, known as 'The Master Mummer', was such a good disguise artist that no-one knew what he really looked like; Zenith the Albino was an opium-addicted social outcast who committed his crimes wearing full evening dress yet somehow always evaded the police; Count Ivor Carlac was an evil Eastern European with no redeeming qualities at all; Rupert Waldo was extraordinarily strong and impervious to pain; Dr Huxton Rymer, a mad surgeon; Wu Ling, a Fu Manchu-alike; Mr Reece, a Moriarty-alike... the list goes on.
In 1921, WH Twyman took over the reigns of the UJ and, for the following two decades, Sexton Blake was at his absolute peak of popularity.
This was helped, in no small part, by the arrival of a new illustrator: the prolific and superb Eric Parker. Many artists had tried to capture the likeness of Blake over the years but none succeeded like Parker; his tall, thin but broad-shouldered detective, tight-lipped and with hair deeply receded at the temples, became the definitive image. His style was minimalist; quick sketchy and dynamic lines with a slightly unfinished look. In addition, from 1929, he painted over 900 covers for The Sexton Blake Library - an astonishing outpouring of creativity.
Weathering the Storm
In the early 1930s, the first crisis arrived. A bright young exec at Fleetway spotted the fact that Union Jack wasn't selling particularly well in Ireland and decided that the name of the paper was probably the problem. The fact that sales were steady elsewhere didn't enter the equation. Concerns were raised and the decision was taken to remodel the UJ into a paper resembling another Fleetway publication, The Thriller. So, after nearly 50 years at the top, the UJ, with its glorious colour covers, came to an untimely end in 1933 and was replaced by Detective Weekly, with a larger, rather ungainly format and a drab black, white and grey cover.
The change was not greeted with enthusiasm by fans and sales plummeted. For a while, Blake was dropped from the publication altogether (though he continued in SBL)... and when he returned, it was mainly in the form of reprinted or rehashed tales from old editions of UJ. The terminally ill paper finally died in 1940, leaving SBL to carry the flag.
When the Second World War erupted, a great many publications disappeared due to widespread paper shortages. It's a measure of the SBL's popularity that it survived. But the war did have an affect; it changed the character of the tales. With the arrival of an all-to-real super-villain named Adolph Hitler, the likes of Plummer and Zenith and co. suddenly seemed rather hard to swallow. So Sexton Blake began to fight against a more realistic kind of villainy; small-time burglaries, petty murders, cheating husbands and swindling wide-boys. Many Blake scholars regard this as his leanest and least satisfactory period but, in fact, from a cultural point of view, it's the richest; jam-packed with social observations and 'ground-level' detail about the way people lived their lives during the bleak post-war years.
The New Order
But sales were slowing and by the mid-1950s the saga seemed stuck in a rut. In 1956, William Howard Baker was made the series editor and was ordered to give Blake an overhaul. His changes were profound - some say ruthless – and resulted in what fans refer to as the 'New Order' series. Out went the superficial Holmes references and in came a tougher, grittier detective with a gorgeous blonde secretary named Paula Dane and a modern, fully-staffed office in Berkeley Square. Tinker became a young man with a roving eye and a proper name: Edward Carter. But he also got rather eclipsed by Paula, which didn't go down too well with 'old-school' fans.
Nevertheless, Baker had breathed new life into the series and Blake punched and shot his way through the latter half of the '50s in fine fettle.
The Beginning of the End
A new decade brought a new zeitgeist and the swinging-sixties proved a confusing time for Britain's longest-lived consulting detective. With the arrival of sexually-charged and morally-uncertain super-heroes like James Bond, Blake started to seem hopelessly old fashioned. Sales dropped and, in 1963, the booklet-style Sexton Blake Library came to an end. For two years the character disappeared from view for the first time since the beginning of the century. Then, in 1965, the SBL returned, this time in paperback format... but only managed to stagger as far as 1969 before admitting defeat.
Perhaps inevitably, Blake made his way onto the small screen. Initially, the BBC was interested; hoping for a vehicle to attract ITV's The Avengers audience. Unfortunately, after failing to resolve rights issues with the publishers, the character of Sexton Blake was dropped and the series transformed into 1966-67's Adam Adamant Lives!, the adventures of an Edwardian resurrected in mid-1960s' London.
In 1968, ITV had better luck with the publishers and cast Laurence Payne in the role for what became a very successful three-year series.
The End... and a Reprise (sort of)
With the arrival of the 1970s, Sexton Blake practically vanished, only appearing in sporadic compilations until, in 1978, the BBC produced what many fans remember as a truly awful six-part serial starring Jeremy Clyde in the title role. Sexton Blake and the Demon God got everything wrong, mixing absurd pomposity with ill-judged attempts at humour, and brought the saga to a lamentable end. The book of the series was the last original Blake tale to be published to date.
So that was the end of an amazing saga... well, almost.
In 1979, Fleetway published a new comic – an offshoot of 2000AD – called Tornado. The original intention had been to reprise Sexton Blake in strip format. High quality stories were written, excellent artwork was done, but, at the very last moment, it was discovered that Fleetway had, in 1968, accidentally signed away the rights to use Sexton Blake to ITV. Caught in a legal deadlock, Fleetway had no choice but to rename their detective. So Sexton Blake, Tinker and Pedro became Victor Drago, Spencer and Brutus. Nevertheless, Blake fans prefer to think of the 22 issues of Tornado as Sexton Blake's last gasp – a far more elegant and satisfactory departure than The Demon God.
Is the franchise dead? Almost certainly not. For over 20 years, persistent rights problems have prevented Blake's reappearance. But it is rumoured that these have now been sorted out and the way is clear for a return.
Calling Sexton Blake... Calling Sexton Blake...