I recently read this tale, as a breaktime-filler at work, and just had to write about it, it’s brilliant!
New Series number 606, May 22nd 1915
The story begins with a lengthy prologue, in fact it’s so long you forget it even is a prologue and wonder when Sexton Blake is going to show up!
As it is, the tale begins in winter in the Russian city of Petrograd. General Karoski is waiting at a resturant for Elga Seblinsky, the daughter of a count that he is deeply in love with. However she is engaged to another man, Boris Tchapernoff. But the general has an ace up his sleeve – he knows that Elga’s father is “The Wolf”, and a member of The Nihilists, a group that want to bring down the government of Russia. The general attempts to blackmail Elga, telling her he knows where her father is meeting that very night, and that if she doesn’t promise to marry him her father will be arrested and exiled – virtually a death sentence.
Just as the general loses his temper Boris Tchapernoff appears on the scene and knocks the general to the ground, Elga faints and by the time she has come around the general is long gone – to arrest her father! Boris races them to the meeting-place in his sleigh, but they are just too late – and they witness Elga’s father being led away in chains, never to be seen again. Elga wants to shoot the general there and then, but it would only result in them being arrested too, and Boris has to drag her away.
During the earlier ‘scene’ Boris and Karoski had arranged to fight a duel – which is to take place in the gardens of a mansion during a masked ball. Elga drugs Boris and takes his place in the costume, eager to have her personal revenge. However the general cheats at the duel – turning and firing after only five paces instead of the agreed six. “Boris'” second. Alexis Irloff, pulls off the victims mask and discovers the truth, shortly before being shot himself. Boris, recovered from the drug, arrives just in time to swear he will have his revenge on General Karoski!
Five years pass, and the world is plunged into a devastating war. One that causes Tinker, Sexton Blake’s assistant, to compose a ‘touching ballad’:
Tinker’s anti-German song!
A woman named Enid Delane comes to visit the great detective – she is the victim of a blackmailer named Latham Gower, who has got hold of some silly love letters she wrote as a teenager, and is demanding ever-increasing sums of money not to send them to her husband. Gower has now invited her, and several other of his victims, to a party. Sexton Blake decides to accompany Miss Delane to the party, disguised as her father!
At the party two kinds of guests are present – high society, all of them Gower’s victims, and gower’s associates – dodgy bookies, loan sharks and the like. Enid and “Sir Thomas” Delane both arrive at the party, the latter engaging Gower in a protracted conversation about safes and burglars – in order to find out the location of Gower’s safe.
As the party wears on Sir Thomas, AKA Sexton Blake, slips away and breaks into the safe, collecting up all of the blackmail documents and burning them in the gas stove. Just as he is about to leave the room Gower enters and passes into a private office with one of his “clients”, the French Monsieur Leon. As Sexton Blake listens from his hasty hiding place the “Frenchman” begins to tell Latham Gower a ‘leetle story’ – about a murdering Russian officer who dissapeared, after wounding a woman severely in a rigged duel and driving her half-insane! For the Frenchman is really Boris Tchapernoff and Latham Gower is General Karoski!
Boris demands that the general fight the duel that they could not in Russia, when suddenly Elga bursts in through the large windows. She has been free of her insanity – which comes and goes, and begs Boris not to murder the general, for duels in England are illegal. Sexton Blake decides to intervene – when a body thuds against the office door and slams it shut. Then there is another thud, a whistle, and a sucession of horrifying screams!
Blake forces his way in and finds Boris knocked out, an ugly wound on his head – Elga is in the corner, screaming with insanity, and Latham Gower is dead, with a knife buried deep in his heart! Of course Sexton Blake is still in disguise so has to leave with his daughter, who “is ill”, and then rush back to the mansion as his true self and “discover” the crime. Luckily a doctor arrived quickly while Blake was away and the scene has not been disturbed too greatly – but the mystery is baffling – Boris was knocked out before the murder, and Elga could not have been strong enough to do it. Besides which the knife is a huge showy Mexican piece, not the thing a Russian would carry around. Added to this are some strange animal tracks in the room.
Inspector Martin, one of the Scotland Yard officials that Sexton Blake is familiar with, arrives at the scene and immediatley arrests Boris. The robbed safe and burned papers only add to the confusion. Blake decides to proceed more carefully and has Tinker bring Pedro, their intelligent bloodhound, over from Baker Street. they set pedro on the trail of the small animal that had been in the room… and wind up at a circus! On the way the Inspector tumbles to the fact that Sexton Blake had robbed the safe and actually heard the murder happen. The trail Pedro follows ends up at a tent where Captain Emanuel Carlos, a famous Lion-tamer, is performing. He wants to try and enter a cage containing a dangerous untamed lion, but has not so far managed the feat. He also has a pet ferret – the mysterious small animal!
Sexton Blake and Inspector Martin return to the mansion and search Latham Gower’s office to try and connect the lion tamer to the blackmailer. Eventually they find a hidden compartment in his desk with documents relating to Gower’s other, “official” business, as a moneylender with absurd interest rates. Emanuel Carlos is one of his victims. They need more proof, however, and Sexton Blake, disguised as a general worker at the circus, manages to enter the lion tamer’s caravan, and discovers that Carlos used to be a knife-thrower, and has 40 knives that are the exact duplicates of the ones that killed Latham Gower.
Sexton Blake and Inspector Martin go and watch the lion tamer, intending to arrest him afterwards. However the lion attacks him and he is fatally wounded – he makes a deathbed confession – he had originally borrowed money for his daughter’s medical treatment, but had got deeper into Latham Gower’s clutches. One night he heard that his daughter had died, and went to Gower’s house, taking advantage of the confusion of of the argument he witnessed to throw a knife through the window and kill the blackmailer!
In the end a friend of Sexton Blake performs an operation on Elga and cures her insanity – and later on her and Boris are married.
This is a brilliant story, with a lot of unexpected twists and angles. It goes off the boil in the end, though. The Lion-tamer’s mauling and deathbed confession is all a bit too neat and tidy – but space restrictions and wartime shortages applied. I wonder how much better this tale may have been if it had been extended and held over for the 60-80,000 word Sexton Blake Library, which began in September 1915?