We talked about Biggles, last week, and the little spotlight the British pulp heroes are getting these days.
And yet, they were (and are) an interesting bunch.
The only one, apparently, that still gets around a lot is Sexton Blake.
Hard putting to sleep a character which appeared in over 4000 stories, penned by no less than 200 different authors.
And I’m particularly fond of Blake because he might well be the first true pulp hero I ever met.
It was in Baker Street, a long time ago…
Sexton Blake goes a long way back – he first appeared in the wonderfully titled Halfpenny Marvel, in December 1893.
One hundred and twenty years ago, actually.
And yes, the same year in which Conan Doyle decided to off his increasingly overwhelming character, the Baker Street Detective.
Part of a number of investigators which flooded the popular magazines with their adventures to fill the gap left by Holmes’ fall down Reichenbach Falls, Blake played the role of Holmes clone for about twenty years, being so cheeky he actually moved to Baker Street, and rented an apartment in front of the one occupied by his more famous counterpart.
Then, in 1919, something changed, and Blake – while keeping his Holmes-like looks and manners – shifted to far more outrageous pulp territories.
Outrageous as in killer carnivore plants and zombie cannibal pigmies stalking the streets of London.
That sort of stuff.
Also, Blake showed a penchant for muscular action and a passion for innovation and technology that put him in the same league of, say, Doc Savage.
And did he travel!
There’s quite a bit of globetrotting in Blake’s stories.
And women – Blake had quite a number of ladies involved in his adventures.
The character starred in stories, comics, movies, radio dramas and a TV series.
I chanced upon a Sexton Blake omnibus, called Sexton Blake Wins, in the late ’80s.
And I was blown away*.
Blake’s stories were hard to get by, but today something is moving.
There’s a few very good collections, available relatively on the cheap (the David Stuart Davies-edited selection published by Wordsworth goes for less than a fiver), and the character deserves a read, in my opinion.
He’s not the Poor Man’s Sherlock Holmes, as some say.
He’s a quite different sort of character – at least in his “golden age”, between the wars.
He’s a pulp hero**.
* Being still a teenager I actually wrote a pastiche, in which Blake is hired by Count Dracula – who is stalked by a Dutch weirdo called Van Helsing who’s convinced the Rumanian nobleman is a vampire. Turns out Dracula was actually looking for Holmes, but he got the wrong address.
** And come to think about it, the quite fun movies starring Robert Downey Jr actually feel a lot like good old Sexton Blake fare.
- Free Sherlock Holmes: the Copyright Battle of Baker Street (theconversation.com)
- Oliver Tearle: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Sherlock Holmes (huffingtonpost.com)
- ‘Moriarty Lives’, ‘Doc Savage’ announced by Dynamite (digitalspy.co.uk)