Sunday, 9 June 2013

W J Passingham - The Case of the Ace Acomplice - Sexton Blake Library - 3rd Series, Number 298

"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.