Just for a bit of fun, see whether you can name the following literary creation: a consulting gentleman detective who first appeared in print during Victorian times; he resides on Baker Street, and employs the services of a housekeeper; he carries out his investigations with aid from a male associate; and his various exploits have been translated onto the big and small screens, as well as radio.
Elementary? Well, maybe quite not as much as you may first think. Meet Sexton Blake, perhaps the most famous fictional British hero you have possibly never heard of.
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Blake had his first outing in 1893, coming just six years after the debut of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character, and has been variously described as being “the Edwardian James Bond” and “the prince of the penny dreadfuls”, as well as “the office boys’ Sherlock Holmes”. Whereas Conan Doyle’s name has become synonymous with his Master Detective, Blake is at something of a disadvantage, as his originator is nowhere near as well-known.
Step forward, Harry Blyth, who – under the pen name of Hal Meredith – gave Sexton Blake his first outing in a story paper named The Halfpenny Marvel, for which Blyth had received a sum of nine guineas. He eventually sold the rights to Blake, which has resulted in the character having in excess of some 200 different writers over more than a century. For nearly 50 years, Blake’s adventures were being chronicled within the pages of his very own publication, The Sexton Blake Library, coming to an end in 1968.
In that time, something in the region of 4,000 Blake stories were penned by that slew of authors, making him one of the most well-documented literary detectives of all time. These were very much the province of ‘Boys’ Own’ material, with a ‘pulp’ feel, possessing less of the pure intellectual rigour of Blake’s Baker Street neighbour, and more derring-do, with our hero not being afraid to indulge in a spot of fisticuffs to help wrap up his cases.
Sexton Blake was also to turn up in his own comic strip on a regular basis between 1939 and 1960, with sporadic returns right up to 1979. His first foray into cinema came during the silent era, in 1909’s imaginatively-titled Sexton Blake, with the last adaptation being by Hammer Films in 1968. He also arrived on radio in 1939, courtesy of the BBC, and leading to a popular run on Radio 4 in 1967; producer Dirk Maggs ended up reviving him in 2006 for a radio pilot, The Adventures Of Sexton Blake, which went on to become a full series on Radio 2 starring Simon ‘Arthur Dent’ Jones.
The first attempt to bring him to television came during the mid-1960s, when Sydney Newman – the man behind ITV’s The Avengers, and Doctor Who – came up with a notion to bring Blake into the Swinging Sixties, in Sexton Blake Lives!, which would see the hero being frozen in 1902 by an enemy, and thawed out in the present day. Sadly for Newman, it was put on ice by the rights holders, who had refused permission to use Blake; undaunted, he repurposed the idea by creating his very own original Edwardian detective, which resulted in Adam Adamant Lives! instead.
The ITV franchise holder Rediffusion London (later Thames Television) was to have more luck, due to the then-current custodian of Blake’s character and legacy having a change of mind over there being a television series, leading to Sexton Blake kicking off a run on TV which was to last from 1967 to 1971, starring Laurence Payne. Unfortunately, all bar one of the episodes appear to have been destroyed over the years, with the sole survivor – the very first instalment – making its way onto YouTube.
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Although attempts have been made to modernise Sherlock Holmes over the years – such as Basil Rathbone’s cinematic efforts to fight the Nazis in World War II, and contemporary adaptations in the form of Elementary and Sherlock – the most definitive versions are faithful period adaptations set in the era when Conan Doyle’s stories were written, namely between 1897 and 1915. As such, Holmes has remained, for the most part, a product of his time, faithful to when he was first in print.
Sexton Blake, however, was never one to just be preserved in aspic like Holmes, and as his stories continued to be written, so they reflected the present day. W. Howard Baker took over the reins as editor of The Sexton Blake Library in 1956, and it was to kick off a revamp of the character and format which become known as the ‘New Order’ era; these stories now saw far more of a James Bond-ian tone, with some of the subject matter managing to attract the ire of Mrs Mary Whitehouse, self-appointed guardian of public morality.
This ‘New Order’ period features in the new collection from Rebellion Publishing, holders of the rights to Sexton Blake since 2018, entitled – aptly enough – Sexton Blake’s New Order. This collection of three classic Blake stories has been curated by Mark Hodder, an English steampunk author, and a long-standing Sexton Blake enthusiast. In 2013, Hodder’s novel The Silent Thunder Caper was to be the first officially sanctioned Sexton Blake original work to be published in 35 years; Hodder also established the BLAKIANA website, which was devoted to the detective.
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Who better than Hodder, then, to being us some prime cuts from The Sexton Blake Library, covering the gamut of ‘New Order’ era sleuthing and adventure? Sexton Blake tended to have more fantastical elements than Sherlock Holmes, with a rogues gallery to rival that of Batman, including a Voodoo Queen, and an invisible man; Blake’s ‘New Order’ period saw even more far-out ideas employed, with the three stories in this collection alone including flying saucers, secret volcano lairs, psychics, and mad scientists.
This trio of Blake tales – ‘The World-Shakers’, by Desmond Reid; ‘The Big Steal’, by Jack Trevor Story; and ‘Bred To Kill’, by Martin Thomas – ably demonstrate the flexibility of the format used for Blake’s adventures in his fictional world; by keeping pace with the age, it means there is plenty of scope here for keeping the character fresh, and bringing in plenty of larger-than-life escapades. Each writer also brings their own voice and style, offering their own spin on Blake, while also still staying faithful to the character.
The most grounded of the stories – ‘The Big Steal’ – is also perhaps the most compelling of the trio, introducing us to a married couple who become victims of circumstance, being manipulated by a criminal gang in such a fashion as to leave the reader positively bristling at the sheer injustice of it all. Having the story recounted in flashback, starting at – what appears to be – the end, there are plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing as to what is actually happening, with a more-than satisfying denouement.
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Hodder employs a neat little framing device of being a writer visiting the abode of Blake, talking to the detective and his sidekick, Edward ‘Tinker’ Carter, bemused as to how both of them could still be alive and kicking in the 21st Century, due to the characters having been around for well over a century. More questions are posed than answers received, with all of the grandiose plans concocted by Blake’s foes falling firmly into the ‘Credibility Gap’, being too audacious for anyone to even comprehend, let alone thwart with aplomb.
Sexton Blake’s New Order is a wonderful little compilation of some delightfully old-fashioned storytelling, without it being in any way meant in a pejorative sense. Sexton Blake happens to be a wonderfully uncomplicated character, with no inner turmoils or trauma; just a strong sense of right and wrong, as well as conviction, gallantry and pluck. A few more heroes like this nowadays would be more than welcome, and a revival for the character feels long overdue.
Sexton Blake’s New Order is out now from Rebellion Publishing.