Stuart Douglas` Zenith`s End is the final story in the admirable `Zenith Lives` collection published by Obverse Books. But is it an end for our eponymous anti-hero, or simply a new beginning ? Not strictly a Blake story but one that centres around the enigmatic and intriguing character of Zenith the Albino, a worthy opponent of Blakes from the early years. IIRC, Douglas` story is the only one to refer to Blake, albeit rather obliquely. It is also (I think) the only one told by Zenith in the first person. It begins with the central character, now rendered immortal due to some mysterious dealings in the past, pondering his current situation and feeling more than a little world-weary and out of place in `70s London ( "Baker Street looked empty and grey in the winter rain, and more than ever I was aware that my time had passed"). He embarks on a quest that takes him from Baker Street to Scotland Yard`s Black Museum and then, perhaps unexpectedly, to the home of a flamboyant rock star. There events take a turn that surprises even him. In the early part I was not quite sure what to expect. To tell the story from Zenith`s point of view, to see the world through his eyes is a master-stroke but one that has pitfalls for the unwary. To over-emphasise his world-weariness would be to cheapen it, overdo the understatement and you may miss the mark. As the story progresses, however, I was carried along with it and there were some lovely touches, particularly in the visit to the Black Museum. The tale has a twist or two before it runs it`s course, and is none the worse for that. I myself am an admirer of post-war Blake, a period that I gather holds little appeal for Mr Douglas. Most of my favourite authors are dead. It follows I am what marketing types used to call a "tough sell" when it comes to this sort of think. If Mr D and the other contributors to this collection can win me over - and they have - the chances are it will appeal to others as well. Stuart Douglas and Obverse Books can be found athttp://obversebooks.co.uk. Most of the other stories in this worthy tome have already been reviewed in this blog - you`ll find them easily enough if you search about a bit.
I was paid half the going rate because the story had to be "cleaned up and cut down by half", although when it appeared in the bookshops, under a house-name that seemed more suited to an undertaker or a bent solicitor, not a word had been changed, not a comma snipped.
As an experience to put steel into the beginner-writers` soul, it is to be recommended. Even so, the sum I got, to one not long out of blazer and straw boater, was staggering."
Jack Adrian, from his introduction to Sexton Blake Wins
I first encountered `Jack Adrian` as editor of Sexton Blake Wins and Crime at Christmas, and have only recently leaned that `Jack` is in fact author Christopher Lowder.
I have often wondered which Blake story he wrote, and which pseudonym was `attached` to it.
Sadly, I remain in ignorance over the matter. Or can someone enlighten me ?
In the meantime, you can satisfy any longings you may have to learn more about Lowder by clicking on these links ;
W A Ballinger was one of a number of pen-names adopted by Sexton Blake Library editor W Howard Baker, possibly influenced by his childhood hero Charles Hamilton aka Frank Richards aka Owen Conquest aka many other people, a writer of 1930s school stories. Having previously written one or two Blakes, Baker became editor in the late `50s and is credited with having rescued the then-flagging SBL from possible extinction, attracting new writers like Jack Trevor Story and Martin Thomas and incorporating new characters into the stories. By the time this story appeared in 1963, publishers and copyright holders Fleetway were getting ready to abandon the SBL. Baker must have been a worried man, but there`s nothing in this story to give that away. The story is reminiscent of his earlier Walk in Fear (aka Every Man an Enemy), except that in this instance, Blake is brought into contact with the film world rather than the publishing industry. Although there is an element of satire, this one falls more firmly into the `traditional whodunnit` category, but is a pretty good example of that genre nonetheless. There are some good lines, particularly when Blake assures one character that he doesn`t, as the other imagines, think of him, as a `shark`, then stands back to allow him through a doorway. "Now you swim ahead" he says courteously. There are also one or two good pen-portraits ; "Geoffrey Tithe had lank, thinning grey hair and a face like a camel : haughty eyes, proud nose and lips seemingly ready to spit. He wore a faded green jacket and a derelict pair of corduroy trousers like twin badges of virtue." Baker`s work seems to be a mixed bag. This is not quite as good as his very best stories, but is still streets ahead of his worst. The writing has pace, and carries the reader along very agreeably, and the eventual outcome is a surprise (or was to me at any rate).
"The moon came up as twilight closed in over the River Thames. Shadows deepened along the banks on each side of the broad ribbon of water, so that wharves and warehouses, familiar enough in daylight, became shrouded in mystery." With this splendidly atmospheric opening sentence, we are plunged into a vintage crime caper set in post-war London. I assume from the likely age of this SBL that it was quite contemporary at the time. Journalist and author William John Passingham (1897 - 1957) wrote fantasy and science fiction stories during the 1930s (dinosaurs in a lost world beneath the streets of London, that sort of thing) and was active in the Science Fiction Association* . In the post-war period he wrote a couple of `proper` books and, more importantly from our point of view, also penned a couple of titles for the Sexton Blake Library. This is a creditable attempt at a `jewel heist` thriller , turned in by an author not known for this kind of thing. It is marred only by a certain tendency to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, and, it has to be said, by a certain amount of carelessness on the part of the author. The fact that it turns out OK on balance is a credit to the author`s abilities, though one is left wth the feeling it could have been so much better. As the story begins we encounter two of Passingham`s own characters, Inspector James Reck of the Thames Police (aka `Reck of the River`) and another officer, Inspector Clayton. Reck is a good, strong character with a lot of potential. I`d be interested to know if Passingham wrote any other `Reck of the River` tales. Clayton is a less developed character but a good foil for Reck and we do get some sense of who he is. You might wonder if it was wise to have other fairly strong detective characters in a story devoted essentially to Sexton Blake but to my mind the author does in fact pull that off. He has less luck elsewhere. First we are introduced to a sharp-shooting expert on precious stones known as Diamond Willie (I`m not making this up !). A lot of time is spent on this character, and I feel that was a mistake. Next, roughly half-way through we have a gratuitous Cold War element thrown in for no good reason. The story is beginng to get a bit cluttered and this is all the more regrettable given that the two main villains are not developed at all and remain simply names and descriptions. There is also a problem of consistency. Blake periodically starts to talk like an American gangster ("I`ll bust this place wide open - and everybody in it.") and at another point a minor character, criminal Larry Parkes, comes over all grammatical in an equally incongruous way ("I simply dared not open my mouth. Things look altogether different now, though, and I`ve had time to think the matter over carefully.") I make no complaint about the many implausibilities that litter the plot - it`s a far-fetched tale, but it`s fun. I just can`t help feeling that Passingham could have turned in something great if he`d put his mind to it.
It gave me great pleasure earlier this week to receive a Press Release from Obverse Books announcing their "acquisition from IPC media of the license to the famous Baker Street detective Sexton Blake." The release goes on to give a quick summary of the history of our fictional sleuth before explaining their plan "to resurrect the famous Sexton Blake Library, commencing with a new novella by best-selling genre author George Mann entitled `Sexton Blake and the Vengeful Dead` , combined in one hardback and electronic volume with a reprint of a rare, classic Blake story from the inter-war years. " For more information contact Stuart Douglas at Obverse Books via their website www.obversebooks.co.uk . I for one will be very happy to see a re-invigorated SBL with new titles by current authors. I personally would hope that they will also seize the chance to reprint some of the more interesting post-war Blakes as well as the pre-war stuff, but that may be just me. Anyway, it`s a worthy venture which I hope all Blake fans will support.