Thursday, 27 May 2010

Jack Trevor Story - Murder in the Sun - Sexton Blake Library

Jack Trevor Story - Murder in the Sun - Sexton Blake Library - Series 4, Number 412, August 1958

Two things for the price of one here, a sequel to the same author`s excellent Season of the Skylark and a few fascinating insights into the lifestyle of 1950`s Britain.

Sally and her young brother Ronny live in a `rooming house`, their father having died an undischarged bankrupt. Things are hard as, purely from a sense of decency, Sally uses every spare coin to re-imburse her father`s creditors.

During the school holidays, Ronny tries to help by visiting the site of a factory bombed during the war. Local people use the site as a rubbish tip and he is often able to salvage scrap metal to sell on - a friendly scrap merchant has shown him how to use a magnet to establish which items are made of iron.

On one particularly fateful trip, he unearths something that will change the lives of the rooming-house occupants forever. Although he doesn`t realise it, he has found a number of metal plates used in the manufacture of forged banknotes. Disturbed by a man who seems to be a vagrant, he takes to his heels. A passing policeman intervenes and finds, unnoticed by the fleeing Ronny, a partially decomposed corpse.

One of the rooming-house tenants recognises the plates for what they are and offers what seems to be a generous price for them. The action switches to a seaside setting as Sally and the other tenants set about a new life,  little knowing that they are being sought by a mysterious villain known as The Patron. They are also, naturally, being shadowed by Sexton Blake. 

Soon we find that three of Sally`s associates are none other than the Magnus family, a trio of geriatric villains first encountered in The Season of the Skylark.

There is a good passage where Mr Magnus (known to Sally and Ronny as Mr Murdoch) reflects on the murderous proclivities of one of his daughters ;

"Mr Murdoch looked with sorrow at his daughter. He had not visualised this when she was taking her bible-class prize in her pig-tails and gym slip. Although, now he came to think of it, it was rather odd how the school had got burnt down on the very day she was sent home for cutting up a grass snake."

The portrayal of an English seaside holiday resort is, presumably, a conscious echo of `Skylark` and none the worse for that.

Unlike Skylark, which seemed (to me at least) to have been planned as a  novel and then  turned into a Blake story (JTS often did that when strapped for ready cash) , this appears to have been intended as a Blake from the outset.

If I had to choose between the two, I`d opt for Skylark every time, but this is a worthy successor none the less.

Friday, 14 May 2010

W J Passingham - The World Championship Mystery

W J Passingham - The World Championship Mystery - Amalgamated (Fleetway) - Sexton Blake Library Series (Series 3 Number 288, May 1953)

At the start of this story, boxing promoter Big Bill Broughton is a worried man. His star protege, middleweight champion Johnny Gerard has a big fight coming up, and someone is prepared to use fair means or foul to stop him winning.

Gerard has other worries closer to home. Under his real name, John Grandby, he stands to inherit his family`s stately home. More than one party has expressed an interest in buying it and he suspects this flurry of offers has a connection with the recent murder of his uncle.

Soon Bill is saying the magic words ;

"This is a case for a private detective, and the best of his kind will be here some time this morning."

"You mean - ?" Johnny queried sharply.

"I mean Sexton Blake."

Blake`s main problem is to decide whether the two cases are related. Are the same people who want the house so badly also out to ruin Johnny`s boxing career ? Or are there two entirely separate groups of wrong-doers to be tackled ?

Anyone who wanted to go in for a bit of destructive criticism would find their work fairly easy here.

 The most glaring incongruity is when the author describes the visit of a police officer to the premises of a particular company. Blake has already told Tinker the outcome of the officer`s visit some pages previously and it seems strangely placed in the text.

Elsewhere, Blake drives to Putney Police station and speaks to the desk sergeant in order to find the location of builder`s yards in the area. Surely he knew how to use a phone book ?

Quite a big feature is made of a boxing match part way through the story. I`d query how well the writer knew the sport, but worse than that, his account is like something from Mills and Boon in  places ;

"Wild bursts of cheering...rang out like surf beating hard and wind-driven against a rock-bound beach...Destiny must have it already written that the Sullivan arena would never witness such a fighting epic."

Despite these failings, the story keeps it`s head above water largely because of the underlying "two cases or one ?" motif and Blake`s attempts to clear a wrongly-arrested Russian businessman.

Once the case becomes clearer, the story is in danger of losing the reader, partly because the central questions are largely answered, partly because the main villain has three possible motives which maybe indicates a degree of muddled thinking on the part of the author.

The story is saved by an unexpected plot development which takes our hero to the site of an old  civil war Royalist stronghold just in time for a dramatic showdown. The last few pages, concerned entirely with Johnny`s boxing career and associates, seemed to me a bit surplus to requirements, though others may feel it rounds the thing off nicely. 

Despite quite a few amateurish touches (Some may actually be the responsibility of Fleetway`s rather inconsistent editors and proof-readers. I would think this likely as I gather the author was already an experienced writer of non-fiction*.), the story does hold the attention, and I would regard it as a creditable attempt, though perhaps not the work of a literary genius.

I would like to report that the author turned out more Blakes, refining his skills as he went along. Sadly, he wrote only one other that I know of (The Ace Accomplice) although I gather he may also have written a children`s book, the intriguingly-title Their Faces Turned Green**. 

Worth reading, but only if you`re prepared to enter into the spirit of things.
* I`m now a little better informed about Mr Passingham`s career as journalist and author. See my review of his `The Case of the Ace Accomplice`, posted on this blog 9 June 2013, for more accurate information.
** `Their Faces Turned Green` appeared in Modern World magazine Volume 1, Number 51, 8 March 1941.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

John Hunter - Murder in the Air


Like Walter Tyrer, John Hunter was a successful novelist of the pre-war years who spent the post-war period writing for Fleetway (Amalgamated) on a freelance basis. I believe that, like Tyrer, he turned his hand to anything they needed - detective stories, westerns, romance.

This SBL story of Hunter`s is a little different in tone to some of his others, it is told in a very straightforward manner, with some of the language , particularly towards the beginning, being used in quite a pedestrian way. There is none of the interweaving of the stories of different characters that I had taken to be his trademark.

Against that, the story is enlivened by two excellent villains (who could usefully have been reprised for another story in my opinion). While the other criminals (there are quite a few) are less memorable, they area sufficiently vile and treacherous lot to keep the reader`s interest. There are one or two plot developments (I wouldn`t necessarily call them twists, but certainly developments) that are particularly unexpected and certainly keep the reader engaged.

Like a number of the Hunter/Tyrer stories, this one seems vaguely gentle, even though it is as full of murder, fraud, infidelity, betrayal and violence as you could hope for. I can only think that this is because the writing lacks pace when compared to the Blake stories of the Howard Baker era. I don`t regard that as a criticism, they are just good stories in a different way.

The immediate post-war period was not a great time for the Sexton Blake Library, but for me, Hunter and Tyrer performed heroically in contributing exciting, intelligently plotted, occasionally humorous and usually well-written stories to the Blake canon.