Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Casebook of Sexton Blake


David Stuart Davies (editor) The Casebook of Sexton Blake (2009)

I've never been particularly drawn to detective fiction, so this collection is some way outside my normal fare; but Obverse Books have acquired the rights to publish new Sexton Blake material, and Mark Hodder has written one, and I'm probably going to be writing one - or at least attempting to do so - so here I am, doing my homework like a good boy.

Sexton Blake was, according to the usual internet sources, either the poor man's Sherlock Holmes or the Sherlock Homes who wasn't afraid of a bit of a scrap every once in a while, depending on where you look. More helpfully, he was a character who emerged from the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century as written by numerous authors, and who most recently appeared with name changed to Victor Drago in the short-lived Tornado comic back in 1979; at least up until the publication of Mark Hodder's The Silent Thunder Caper this year. The parallels with Holmes are difficult to miss, but Blake - whose character remains both consistent and distinct throughout the writing of the six different authors collected here - has sufficient appeal of his own to explain his having remained generally popular for more than a century. I've not read any of Conan Doyle's Holmes since my school days back in the late 1600s, and having recently read and strongly disliked The Lost World I'm disinclined to renew my acquaintance with Arthur's works, but based on what little I can recall, Blake seems an altogether more fallible, likeable, and plausible character. He detects, but not to the point of absurdity or to the detriment of the story. He misses details here and there, and so there's no the angle at which this goldfish bowl is placed clearly indicates that the gentleman who purchased the bus ticket was wearing women's knickers, most likely a pair stolen from his wife's sister; and I doubt he could be portrayed on the telly by anyone quite so annoying as Cucumber.

I realise that with this collection being what it is, it's unlikely to include any of the real stinkers, but all the same, these seven tales testify to Blake as considerably more engaging than I expected him to be. As Mark Hodder points out in the introduction, each provides a genuinely fascinating snapshot of the times, specifically England at the turn of the century. The writing is generally lively and not lacking in gentle humour. As tales churned out to a series of deadlines, it seems they were at least churned out with a generous spirit, being well written above what one might anticipate considering their supposedly inauspicious origin. Additionally, there's a sense of experimentation here, of wishing to avoid the bed-wettingly generic or gung ho which one might, perhaps wrongly, associate with detective fiction; and so Blake and Tinker play for England in The Football Mystery, or turn the other cheek and let a criminal escape, having decided that the poor fucker has already suffered enough in The Black Eagle. My only criticism is that I generally found these stories to be longer than seemed necessary - particularly The Slave Market - which is either down to the word count required by the original publishers or my being unaccustomed to the genre.

I may have groaned at the size of this thing when it first came in the mail, but I'm nevertheless glad to have read it.

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