The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Nelson Lee Mysteries (1894-1933)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Nelson Lee Mysteries began with “Maxwell Scott”’s “A Dead Man's Secret” (The Halfpenny Marvel no. 46, Sept 19, 1894). Lee went on to appear in over 2,500 stories in British story papers, written by a large number of different writers. “Maxwell Scott” was the pseudonym of Doctor John Staniforth (1863-1927), a Yorkshire medical doctor who wrote boys' story paper stories to augment his income.

For over a generation Nelson Lee was Sexton Blake’s (see: The Sexton Blake Mysteries) largest rival in the British story papers. Lee’s career had two distinct phases. During the first phase he was a Blake- and Holmes-like (See: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries) consulting detective, “the hero of Lhasa and Limehouse, confidant of Lloyd George and Kitchener.”1 Lee traveled around the world solving mysteries but was usually to be found in London. His apartment, which doubled as his headquarters, was on Gray's Inn Road. Lee was “aquiline, with sunken yet clear eyes...he could even be called good-looking.”2 Although virile and tough–an underwater battle with axes was as nothing to him–he preferred the comfort of his living room. He had a tendency to pace about his room “with the rapid stride and muttered growls of a caged and hungry lion,”3 wearing his nightgown and solving mysteries without actually going to the scenes of the crimes. Likewise, although he was strong and tough and a red-blooded adventurer (“there is no such word as ‘fail’ in the dictionary of Nelson Lee"4) he enjoyed his Turkish carpets and his antique lamps. Until 1902 he worked intermittently with the French detective Jean Moreau, just as Blake worked with the French detective Jules Gervaise. But Moreau eventually betrayed Lee over the French crown jewels and Nelson had him given into custody.

Lee's assistant was Richard Hamilton, better known as “Nipper,” the counterpart to Blake’s assistant Tinker. Nipper, who was introduced in Lee’s first appearance, was a street urchin whose “features, like his hands, were perfectly modeled” under his filth. The acrobatic Nipper is bright and despite his poverty had memorized the output of many poets, including Latin and German. Nipper is eager and a good person despite his desperate background. Lee had rescued Nipper from a life of crime on the streets of London, just as Blake had rescued Tinker, and like Tinker Nipper repaid Lee by becoming his assistant and friend forever after. In a later story a different origin for Nipper was told, in which he was a “semi-millionaire” school boy at St. Ninian's, a public school, and that it was at St. Ninian's that Lee met Nipper.

For a few years Lee was also assisted by Eileen Dare, a “girl detective” who was useful to Lee in cases where he needed “a woman's intuition” or someone to infiltrate a “house of mystery” in the disguise of a parlor maid. When she was around Lee paid more attention to his appearance and slicked back his hair. He was always courteous to her and spoke to her as “Miss Dare.” She eventually became engaged to Captain Billy Masters, and her disappearance in the stories after 1918 can most likely be ascribed to her marrying Captain Masters and settling down to be his wife. Lee also had a bloodhound, Rajah, who was similar to Blake's Pedro and was ferocious, intelligent, and faithful. Rajah was later replaced by Wolf, another bloodhound.

During the detective phase of Lee's career he was similar to Blake in the scope of his cases as well as the enemies he faced. Lee never had quite the same level of opponent as Blake, but his enemies were respectable nonetheless. Unlike Blake, Lee never went through a significant character evolution during his consulting detective phase and was always a Sherlock Holmes-style Great Detective. Lee teamed up with Blake on several occasions, and it was eventually revealed that they were the best of friends and members of the same club. In a few stories Lee even did Blake the favor of apprehending Blake’s enemies when Blake was elsewhere on a case.

Lee’s Rogues Gallery, while not on the level of Sexton Blake’s, is still more than respectable, and like Blake’s Rogues Lee’s enemies are often more interesting than Lee himself. There was Doctor Karnak, an Egyptian scientist who came to St. Frank’s as a Science master and lecturer, but who was eventually revealed to be a mesmerist, the former leader of a circle of Baal-worshipers, and the controller of a bloodthirsty mummy. There was Jim the Penman, named after James Townsend Saward (1799-?), a notorious barrister-turned-forger who may have been one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspirations for Professor Moriarty (see: “The Adventure of the Final Problem”). Lee’s Jim was a solicitor gone to the bad. He was an expert forger and was so good at disguises that even Nelson Lee was often unable to penetrate them. Jim the Penman hated Lee and tried to kill him on several occasions, but was not completely corrupted. When the Germans approached Jim during World War One and asked him to betray England in exchange for a large sum of money, Jim refused. There was Professor Cyrus Zingrave, “the Monster of Moat Hollow,” Lee’s own version of Professor Moriarty. Zingrave ran various criminal organizations, including the League of the Green Triangle and later the Circle of Terror, all of which were global in scope and engaged in wholesale robbery and murder. And there was Mademoiselle Miton, the Black Wolf, an adventuress who, like Sexton Blake’s Mademoiselle Yvonne de Cartier, had romantic feelings for Lee. Unlike Blake, Lee never reciprocated Miton’s feelings. He felt some affection for her, however, and several times, after capturing her and relieving her of her stolen loot, he gave her enough time to escape before the police arrived.

In 1917 the second phase of Lee's career began. In “Nipper at St. Frank's” (Nelson Lee Library (Original Series) no. 112, Jul 28, 1917), during a case involving a Chinese Triad, Lee and Nipper were hunted by agents of the Triad and hid out at St. Frank's, a “venerable public school” in the Bellton area of Sussex. After the case ended Lee joined the staff at St. Frank’s and became an instructor. Nipper enrolled at St. Frank's so that the Lee and Nipper team would not be split up. This allowed the writers of the Nelson Lee Library and the other magazines in which Lee appeared to still write Nelson Lee detective stories but also to write school stories of the kind which Charles Hamilton made famous with the enormously popular Billy Bunter series. For the next sixteen years Lee spent time at St. Frank's, uncovering trouble there as well as fighting crime and evil abroad. During the St. Frank's phase of his career, however, Lee was accompanied on his cases by members of the St. Frank's faculty as well as some of the students. Nipper remained a constant, and even Eileen Dare occasionally appeared. Other characters joined Lee’s cast of regulars: Lord Dorrimore, the happy-go-lucky, adventurous millionaire who accompanied Lee on many of his international adventures, and whose yacht, the SS Wanderer, was often the aquatic command base during these trips; Umlosi, the Umslopogaas to Dorrimore’s Allan Quatermain (see: The Allan Quatermain Adventures); and the various students of St. Frank's. The stories of Lee’s career at St. Frank’s focused more often on the students of St. Frank's, with Lee and Nipper usually being placed in the background. Those stories gave St. Frank's a well-delineated cast of characters, from students to faculty to the natives of Bellton. These stories were, if anything, more popular with the readers than the stories of Lee's detective years, and it is the St. Frank’s stories, rather than the Lee-as-detective stories, which most fans remember.

Despite the public school setting the St. Frank’s stories are as full of adventure as any story paper detective’s series. Lee et al fought cannibals and a “Gorilla-God” in the Congo. Lee traveled to Africa and hunted for treasure in the deserts of El Safra and in an underground world of vast caverns, volcanos, and even an underground sea. Lee and Nipper and several of the St. Frank’s students traveled underneath the Antarctic, discovered a subterranean world there, and were forced to settle a war between two of its Lost Races (see: The Lost Race Story). Lee and Nipper explored the Amazon and discovered, in a dinosaur-infested part of Brazil, the friendly Arzac and the savage Ciri-Ok-Bak tribes, the “White Giants of the modern El Dorado.” Lee jousted with Foo Chow, a Yellow Peril crime lord in London’s Chinatown, who made the mistake of kidnapping Yung Chin, a Chinese student at St. Frank's. In the Sahara Lee, Lord Dorrimore, Umlosi, and a group of St. Frank's students fought Lost Race Romans under the rule of Emperor Titus. Lee, Nipper, and the St. Frank's crew discovered the descendants of Elizabethan-era English settlers living in the Antarctic. Lee et al discovered El Dorado, with its lake of molten gold, in a section of South America still populated with dinosaurs. There were fires, floods, explosions, and other disruptions at St. Frank's itself, whether from natural disasters or evil headmasters or evil students or from Professor Zingrave, who at one point crashed a burning airplane on to the school. There were mutinies and barrings-out, provoked by the evil German-American millionaire William K. Smith. There was the Petticoat Rule series, where women took charge of the school (and, predictably for the conservative story papers, presided over a disaster). There were schoolboys gone entirely to the wrong, like Ezra Quirke, the “Schoolboy Magician.” When Lee et al stayed at a country mansion, it was inevitably haunted. When Lee et al traveled to Australia they encountered a boy calling himself “Ned Kelly” and claiming to be the grandson of the original Ned Kelly (see: Ned Kelly: The Ironclad Australian Bushranger). Lee et al traveled to the Rockies and encountered the Night Hawk, who used a winged, motorized flying suit for kidnapping. Lee and Nipper dealt with the Inner Seven, a group of corrupt industrialists. Lee and company traveled to India and defeated the Tyrant of Rishner, who rules his land from a tall pinnacle of rock. And Lee et al discovered Atlantis.

Recommended Edition

Print: Edwy Searles Brooks, The Barring-Out at St. Frank’s. London: Howard Baker Press, 1972.


For Further Research

Lucy Andrew, The Boy Detective in Early British Children’s Literature: Patrolling the Borders Between Boyhood and Manhood. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 

Kelly Boyd, Manliness and the Boys’ Story Paper in Britain: A Cultural History, 1855-1940. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Robert J. Kirkpatrick, The Encyclopaedia of Boys’ School Stories. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000.

1 Qtd. in E.S. Turner, Boys Will Be Boys (London: Michael Joseph, 1948), 146.

2 Qtd. in Turner, Boys Will Be Boys, 147.

3 Qtd. in Turner, Boys Will Be Boys, 146.

4 Qtd. in Turner, Boys Will Be Boys, 147.