Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Zenith Lives!

Stuart Douglas (editor) Zenith Lives! (2012)

As a kid, Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone so impressed me in those Sherlock Holmes films as to necessitate a trip to the library in search of Arthur Conan Doyle's originals; but beyond that - and I suppose Victor Drago, the Sexton Blake that never was in the short lived Tornado comic - detective fiction has never really grabbed me. Even as Obverse announced this collection of stories featuring Sexton Blake's albino nemesis, I was thinking of Nils-Olof Franzén's Agaton Sax, probably because they're both fictional detectives and the latter was published in England with illustrations by another Blake, and they both have an x in their names. Therefore it's fair to say that I don't really know Sexton Blake from a hole in the ground, but here I am offering my pearls of wisdom regardless.

The first Sexton Blake story appeared in 1893 and the character has been solving crimes and getting into fights ever since - roughly speaking the Sherlock Holmes whose pint you really shouldn't spill, with Zenith amongst his more distinctive foes.

Mark Hodder was an obvious choice of author for this collection, his being a long time Blake aficionado - owner of the world's largest collection of Sexton Blake periodicals no less - and somewhat nifty with a biro in his own right. Of course he delivers the goods, perfectly invoking time and place without recourse to nostalgia or writing as though perched before the typewriter sucking on a pipe with Max Miller blasting away in the background. Zenith's pulp origins are acknowledged without The Blood of our Land reading like a pastiche, and as always Mark Hodder writes with a sense of purpose and moral conscience which elevate his narrative some way above being mere romp.

Others here are perhaps less faithful to the general tradition of Blake, but nonetheless enjoyable for all that the Zenith character is in part used as springboard more than subject.

Paul Magrs' All the Many Rooms roughly amounts to Michael Moorcock at his nuttiest remixed by Nurse With Wound, even resorting to non-sequiturial lists of names and somehow getting away with it - which I'm not sure I've seen before. It actually reminds me a little of the sort of thing Moorcock once published in New Worlds magazine, and I mean in a good way.

Speaking of Moorcock, he too is present - arguably another obvious choice having cut his publishing teeth at the offices of Fleetway's Sexton Blake Library, later writing Seaton Begg, his own idiosyncratic interpretation revived here for Curaré.

George Mann and Stuart Douglas round up the collection with neat little tales, both relatively low on incident but told with such engaging prose that it's not a problem. I only really know of George Mann as editor to a couple of excellent Solaris Books anthologies a few years back, but he's very clearly a talent in his own right; as is Stuart Douglas, despite his own protestations to the contrary.

Zenith Lives! may take some liberties with the Sexton Blake tradition, but is nevertheless a great collection, possibly Obverse's best thus far in terms of consistent quality. Having recently acquired the rights to originate and publish new Sexton Blake material, I'd say the detective is in good hands with Obverse, and it would be nice to see lengthier efforts from at least Mark Hodder and George Mann very soon.

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