Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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A night out with Johnny Hawke

I first became aware of David Stuart Davies through his Holmes books and his work as editor on the mystery and supernatural anthologies for Wordsworth. I particularly liked Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair, a fun pastiche that crosses the Baker Street Detective with the Prisoner of Zenda.
If you read this blog, you understand how I find that mix irresistible.

But there’s another series of books by Davies that always intrigued me, and that’s the one that goes by the name of Johnny One Eye – and in the past two nights I’ve had the opportunity of reading Johnny’s first outing, Forests of the Night.

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The Pulp Baker Street Detective

Sexton Blake

Sexton Blake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

blakeThen, 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.

And finally, the bad guys, first and foremost Zenith the Albino, but go on, check the excellent page Jess Nevins set up for Blake, and read the bad guys entries.

The character starred in stories, comics, movies, radio dramas and a TV series.

The Casebook of Sexton Blake

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**.

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* 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.