The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Sexton Blake Mysteries (1893-1968)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Sexton Blake Mysteries began with “Hal Meredith”’s “The Missing Millionaire” (The Halfpenny Marvel no. 6, Dec. 23 1893). “Hal Meredith” was the pseudonym of Harry Blyth (1852-1898), a Scots writer. Sexton Blake is one of the most famous and longest-lived detectives in fiction, appearing in over 3900 individual stories, in novels and in over twenty magazines and story papers, which ranks him highly among the most published characters ever. This count does not include movies, plays, radio shows, television shows, comic strips, and comic books. 177 authors wrote Sexton Blake stories, including Michael Moorcock, Edwy Searles Brooks, John Creasey, Jack Trevor Story, Lord Berners, and Flann O’Brien.
Although Blake is often described as a copy of Sherlock Holmes (See: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries), he did not begin or end that way. In his first appearances he had few of Holmes’ characteristics: Blake is muscular rather than tall and lean, more mercenary and money-oriented than Holmes, less brilliant in his deductions, and partnered with an older French detective, Jules Gervaise. Although Holmes’ effect on detective fiction was being felt in 1893, not least in his absence, which allowed for other detective characters to advance the character type of the Great Detective beyond the limits which Conan Doyle had set, the influence of Émile Gaboriau (see: The Lerouge Affair) and Victor Alexis Ponson du Terrail (see: The Rocambole Adventures) on British detective writers was greater, and Blyth followed their model by teaming the younger, clearly British Blake with the older, Lecoq-like Gervaise. It was not until a few years later that Gervaise departed and Blake became more deliberately Holmes-like.
Blake’s Holmesian period lasted for almost fifty years, until the end of World War Two. But even during these years, considered Blake’s Golden Age, Blake was always more action-oriented than Holmes was. Blake was brilliant, if not the eccentric genius that Holmes was, but was more physically capable than Holmes, far more physically active, and faced more colorful, varied, and violent opposition. Like Holmes Blake became famous as a consulting detective and worked with a group of policemen who were only marginally competent and who usually respected his abilities but only begrudgingly thanked him. During this period Blake became a character type for British story paper detectives, imitated and referred to in much the same way that American dime novel detectives were often modeled on Nick Carter (see: The Nick Carter Mysteries).
After World War Two Blake’s stories changed, becoming less fantastic and more realistic, drab, and even noirish, and Blake became a slightly disillusioned private eye in the American hard-boiled style. In the late 1950s he changed again and his stories began verging on espionage and thriller territory, and it was in that mode that the last Blake novel was published in 1968.
As with any character whose stories have been written by dozens of hands, the quality of the Sexton Blake stories varies wildly. The better writers of the Blake series, including G.H. Teed, Gwyn Evans, and George Norman Phillips (as “Anthony Skene”), produced excellent work which does not seem dated and which still reads as smoothly and entertains as highly as it did when first published. Evans’ stories are surprisingly good, and Phillips’ stories about the Hero-Villain Monsieur Zenith the Albino are marvels of aphorisms and angst.
In his early years Blake was a relatively colorless character whose offices were on Wych Street. During his Golden Age, however, his personality developed and he relocated to Baker Street. He became an outspoken and devout patriot his features grew "hawk-like," he became tall and lean, his intellect "incisive," and he began wearing a dressing gown and smoking a pipe in order to help himself think. He gained a housekeeper, the malapropish Mrs. Bardell, and after several different assistants acquired his long-term friend and sidekick, Edward Carter, better known as “Tinker,” an intelligent, cheerful-looking Cockney youth of indeterminate age. Tinker arrived in Blake’s life in 1904, and Blake gained the final member of his menagerie, a faithful, wise, and ferocious bloodhound named Pedro, in 1905.
As a detective Blake has many of the Holmesian traits. Blake is a chemist, a specialist in poisons, and an authority on fingerprints, inks, and firearms. He has various hobbies: microphotography, the study of religions, and the unraveling of codes and ciphers. He is proficient from continual practice at shooting, boxing, jiu jitsu, and fencing. He is "famous" at various sports, including cricket. He is always working on his magnum opus, the Baker Street Index, the definitive encyclopedia of crime. Like Holmes Blake is an accomplished author of monographs, many of which appear in the classic work on German crime, Der Verbrecherkreig (Criminal War). Among his works were such titles as "Some information on the use of methylene blue as an anti-toxin," "Single print classification," "Finger print forgery by the chromicized gelatine method," and "Speculations on ballistic stigmata in fire arms." Blake is an honored figure at the police congresses of Europe, and is world renowned for his skill as a detective. Blake had trained as a younger man as a doctor and was educated at either Oxford or Cambridge and graduated "loaded with honors."
As time passed Blake went through the usual activities that most famous detectives go through—although, as with most things Blakeian, his adventures were like others,’ only more so: he arrested his double (Leon Kestrel, the Master Mummer); he was framed and thrown in jail at Bleakmoor and was nearly lashed; he arrested and helped convict the crooked chief of Scotland Yard; he lost his Baker Street lodgings to dynamitards (see: Anarchists); he went undercover in the French Foreign Legion to winkle out a thief; he got stuck in the Gobi Desert with a bullet-riddled water bottle and no help within a ten day march; a thousand feet above an Alpine gorge he fought a saber duel with a crazed aristocrat on top of a cable-car whose cables were fraying; he dealt with a lunatic cult run by a con man who committed an Impossible Murder using infrared radiation, all against the backdrop of a complete eclipse; he turned down a knighthood; he was offered the job of Chief Commissioner of Police by the Home Secretary; he acted as the Lord Mayor of London; he was given the number 11 in the British Secret Service; he had the British Secret Service invest him with an authority above that of even Scotland Yard; he went to America's Western frontier, met Kit Carson, tangled with a black-masked Robin Hood type, and deduced that Carson was the masked thief; he discovered the secret of Monte Cristo (see: The Count of Monte Cristo); and he was reported dead, to universal grief and mourning, by his Fleet Street collaborator and friend, Derek "Splash" Page after an enemy, disguised as a blind beggar, stumbled into Blake in the street and injected him with poison.
Blake’s adventures were often exciting, but the truth is that Blake himself was not particularly interesting. What usually made the Blake stories enjoyable were the villains. Blake had one of the greatest Rogues Galleries in all of literature, numbering in the hundreds of enemies. There was the Byronic, world-weary albino master thief Monsieur Zenith. There was the Fu Manchu-like Prince Wu Ling, leader of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle (see: The Yellow Peril). There was George Marsden Plummer, a Scotland Yard inspector turned renegade and master criminal. There was Mademoiselle Yvonne de Cartier, an adventuress who Blake loved, the Irene Adler (see: “The Adventure of a Scandal in Bohemia”) to Blake’s Sherlock Holmes. There was Doctor Huxton Rymer, a crooked master surgeon. There was the Criminals’ Confederation, a conspiracy of hundreds of criminals from around the world. (Blake’s battles with the Confederation was a series worthy of the word “epic,” lasting for fifty issues over seven years). There was Leon Kestrel, the “Master Mummer,” whose skill at disguise was so good that he even impersonated Blake for a time. (Lord Peter Wimsey, in Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body?, mentions that he is “Ready to tackle Professor Moriarty or Leon Kestrel or any of 'em”1). There was Waldo the Wonder Man, who had the strength of six men, was impervious to pain, and over the course of a twenty-year career went from a murderous blackmailer to an honorable rogue to a chivalrous detective and friend to Blake. There was Prince Menes, an Egyptian who discovered that he was the reincarnation of the original Prince Menes, the first Pharaoh of Egypt; Prince Menes’ divine destiny, in his eyes, was to conquer the world, and toward this end made himself master of the white slave trade. There was Professor Kew, a former chief surgeon who used a machine of his own creation to drain the “life energy” from his victims. There was Aristide Dupin, the “Laughing Cavalier” of crime, France’s greatest thief and a character whose similarity to Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsène Lupin (see: The Arsène Lupin Mysteries) could not have been coincidental. And on and on, an endless array of colorful men and women, from Mr. Mist the Invisible Man to Gunga Dass, the “Hindoo arch criminal,” a group variously honorable and insane, well-meaning and unrepentant, successful and failing, and usually more entertaining than Blake himself.
Finally, the Sexton Blake stories were a locus of crossovers and team-ups, even more so than the Nick Carter stories. Over a dozen characters who first appeared in the Blake stories went on to appear in their own series in story papers or novels, from W. Murray Graydon’s “wild beast agent” Matthew Quin to Ladbroke Black’s solicitor Havlock Preed (a duplicate of Edgar Wallace’s John G. Reeder) to Stacey Blake’s Africa hand Captain Christmas to John Gordon Brandon’s effete upper-class detective Arthur Stukeley Pennington, a.k.a. “A.S.P.,” who began life in the Blake stories as Brandon’s character Ronald Sturges Vereker Purvale, a.k.a. “R.S.V.P.” There was also Frank Richards’ gentleman detective Arthur Augustus D’Arcy; according to a possibly apocryphal story, Dorothy Sayers submitted a D’Arcy story to the story papers, but it was rejected, so she rewrote it, and remade D’Arcy into Lord Peter Wimsey. Blake also teamed up with Nelson Lee (see: The Nelson Lee Mysteries). Blake teamed up, repeatedly, with Ferrers Lord (see: The Ferrers Lord Adventures). And Barry Perowne, in 1937, wrote two stories in which Blake jousted with Raffles (see: The Amateur Cracksman).
Print: George Mann, ed. Sexton Blake, Detective. London: Snowbooks Ltd., 2009.
1 Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2012), 102.