Sexton Blake and the Great War (2020)

Sexton Blake is a 19th/20th century detective that I was not overly familiar with when I was approached to take part in the blog tour for the first in at least five anthology reprints. Between now and April 2021 four other anthologies are due to be released by Rebellion Publishing with the titles: Sexton Blake Versus the Master Crooks, Sexton Blake’s Allies, Sexton Blake on the Home Front and Sexton Blake’s New Order. Each anthology contains three novellas featuring Sexton Blake from a range of dates and as several of the titles suggest, these stories have a conflict/war theme.

An unusual feature of the Sexton Blake stories is how very early on he became a character owned by a company, rather than to an individual writer, so it wasn’t long until a series of different authors continued the Sexton Blake tales. The multitude of authors involved I think has an interesting effect on Blake as a character, as does the changing social/cultural context. These are two aspects which Mark Hodder explores in his general and story specific introductions. Mark takes a more creative approach to these sections, writing them as though he was interviewing Sexton Blake as a real person, whose actual life experiences had been put down into fiction. I was initially a bit disconcerted, but I soon found myself to be quite engrossed in this novel format and I found it wove together the essential points a relative Sexton Blake novice needed to know.

This approach became especially interesting when Mark “questions” Blake over the inclusion of racist terminology in the some of the stories, asking the character if such phrases should be kept or removed. The character of Blake responds to this challenge by remarking how ‘the censoring of history is a characteristic of fascism’ and suggests that ‘would it not be preferable to provide a context?’ This dialogue does not condone or whitewash the damaging consequences of imperialism but equally finds that ‘the insults aimed at Germans are perfectly understandable within the context of the war,’ (as two of the stories included in the anthology were written during WW1). So in the end this anthology has gone with the approach that most of the anti-German comments are retained, but remarks which are anti-Semitic or racist in other ways have been removed. Their removal has been noted and commented upon in notes. In fairness this only seems to occur during the second story where less than a handful of remarks are deleted. Whilst it is important to prepare readers for these cultural aspects of a story, I think in some respects it may make readers more nervous over the issue than they need to be. The portrayal of German characters does not degenerate into unpalatable stereotype and British characters are not portrayed in a distortedly over-positive manner. The reality of these stories is far more complex and therefore far more interesting.

All three stories included in this anthology were originally published in the Union Jack magazine.

The Case of the Naval Manoeuvres by Norman Goddard (1908)

The story opens with some German officers discussing upcoming British naval manoeuvres in the North Sea near the Shetland Islands. It is be continued in secret, which they find interesting and the German characters are sure that Britain has finally realised how vulnerable they are to attack from that quarter. It seems the Germans have been exploring this area for quite some time. One of these characters is the Kaiser, who is to take a prominent role in this tale. When this meeting is leaked into the British newspapers, national anxiety levels are raised and the Prime Minister calls Sexton Blake in. With his assistant Tinker and Scotland Yard Inspector Spearing, Blake is off to the Shetland Isles. Hereon in Blake faces many challenges: an airship interview with the Kaiser, uncover work within enemy territory and a very taxing journey to London, where it proves hard to hold onto a valuable prisoner.

The electric pace of the plot and the high action focus makes it understandable that the Blake stories were popular with young male readers. Yet to label them as mere boy adventures tales would be foolishly dismissive. There is more to be discovered beneath the surface. Below this surface there is a real sense of cultural anxiety. Anxiety that Germany was amassing weaponry and ships in readiness for a war. Anxiety that the UK government was not doing enough to be ready for this eventuality. Anxiety that there was a fifth column element rising within the country itself. How realistic these anxieties were or how far they were realised is not the question up for debate here. Instead this story is interesting in how it articulates this worry and ideally how it wanted things to be resolved. Blake is not a detective hero who is prone to knee-jerk reactions or is all out for a war. In fact, his actions show someone who is keen to prevent a war in the first place and is considering the long-term implications of his actions. The resolution to this story is incomplete, but we can see the fantasy that perhaps a certain amount of people in the country at the time would have liked to be possible. Like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Blake is a figure the readers can place their trust in and feel reassured by. His larger than life abilities mean you know he cannot be ultimately defeated. This story is of its time, yet that does not mean there is a lack of elements which remain pertinent to the modern day.

Given how this book was written some time before the outbreak of WW1 the depiction of German characters is reasonably balanced. They may be defeated foe, but they are accredited with dignity, resourcefulness and intelligence. They are worthy adversaries for Blake and his relationship with the Kaiser is quite interesting. It seems Blake has worked for and against the Kaiser in the past, and the Kaiser is actually quite keen for Blake to join his service. The way they interact reveals an honour between adversaries.

On War Service by Cecil Hayter (1916)

This is the shortest story in the collection and focuses on Blake and Tinker’s journey to Antwerp as they become couriers for the government. They must go into occupied territory and hand over important documents. This task is unsurprisingly fraught with danger and unforeseen complications. I found this tale to contain an interesting window into life under occupation. This narrative also includes the humorous line from Blake: ‘Better hurry up and dress. Personally I’ve a great objection to being shot in a pair of stolen pyjamas.’ Killing in this story, despite it being set during the war, is very minimal and is only used as a last resort.


Private Tinker — A.S.C. by William Murray Graydon (1915)

Reading these stories one after another meant the stark differences between them more noticeable. Whilst the first two stories are relatively similar in ethos and tone, this final story strongly deviates in many respects. From the start of the story it has a very different feel to it. Unsatisfied with helping to round up resident aliens with Blake, and guilt-ridden over being robbed of important papers he was meant to deliver to Whitehall, Tinker, despite being underage, manages to enter the front using a friend’s papers.

This story reveals a fracture in the relationship between Blake and his assistant. On finally figuring out what Tinker did, resentment sets in and Blake decides that his assistant should reap the consequences of his decision, rather than be extricated. Yet Blake is soon making his own way to the front. He is asked to act on the behalf of Mrs Chumleigh. Her husband, a colonel, has rushed off into the war, leaving her and her new baby behind. But he did not sign his new will. With Mrs Chumleigh’s finances having taken a nosedive, she cannot afford for her husband to die before he has signed, as the old will leaves pretty much everything to his brother. This adds an unusually domestic angle to this story.

Naturally Blake’s path collides with Tinker’s and I found it fascinating how Tinker becomes acclimatised to life on the front. He is in his element, moving from one maverick manoeuvre after another, living life on the edge. Conversely, even though Blake only spends a short time at the front, he seems far more overwhelmed by the reality of war on the frontlines. Moreover, the writer of this story captures perfectly how a soldier like Tinker can become immune to death, (which occurs far more frequently,) and find the act of killing a necessary and matter of fact action to take. Even the death of British characters is treated in a very neutral manner. This story also diverges from its predecessors in how it depicts German characters. Such characters tend to be more brutal and there is no sense of honour between adversaries this time. The ending interested me in how it brings Tinker and Blake back together. The dynamic between them is not restored in a simplistic fashion. There are definite undercurrents.

The introduction to this last story brings up the theme of how WW1 effected the Sexton Blake series. The nature of the cases Blake goes onto investigate after the war markedly change to reflect the new post-war world era the character has to function in. This is an instance in which a story being of its time is not a criticism, it is in fact one of its strengths and sources of fascination. The legacy of these stories gives the impression that they were just boy adventure tales, yet I would strongly suggest that these tales have much more to offer the reader and have more depth than you would initially expect. Consequently I would definitely recommend giving them a go.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (Rebellion Publishing)

 

6 comments

  1. Same here! I’ve always been fascinated with detective stories from the 1920s and 30s that hearken back to the Great War and frustrated at the lack of detective stories written during that period, which effectively put the genre on hiatus until the twenties. So I’ll have to toss this one on my wishlist. Thanks!

    Funnily enough, I assumed, together with JJ, that the only thing the Sexton Blake Library had to offer us was Derek Smith’s Model for Murder, but then I discovered the anonymously published “The Grosvenor Square Mystery” and you recommend a collection of WWI stories. All we need now is an anthology of the Sexton Blake stories listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders and we can start eating our own words.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see how the style of Blake stories would mean they get overlooked nowadays, but I think they have a lot more to offer. I’m not sure if there was a locked room story, perhaps Mark Hodder would know.

      Like

    • A big Blake antho!ogy edited by George Mann came out a few years ago. Pretty much every Pre-WW2 major Blake writer represented. Spoiled by its typography, it is pretty cheap and also has some of the original illustrations as I recall. Sexton Blake, Detective, Ed. George Mann, Snowbooks Ltd., London, 2009.

      Liked by 1 person

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