The Case of the Nihilists Daughter – A Brilliant Union Jack

I recently read this tale, as a breaktime-filler at work, and just had to write about it, it’s brilliant!

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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.

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Which can’t have been very easy in a Russian winter

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’:

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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!

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I swear an illustration very similar to this one has been used at times to represent both Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee! This was before the reign of Eric Parker, who gave Sexton Blake a defined image.

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!

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Sexton Blake

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?

Some Christmas covers

I did this before, right back at the start of the blog. My collection has expanded quite a bit since then, so it’s time for another gallery of Christmas covers!

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Ho Ho… ho?

Starting off right back in 1874 with Chatterbox. That’s not actually the fourth issue, the numbers were restarted for every volume. As you can see the cover is not particularly ‘festive’, but the 1870’s were puritannical times and perhaps a bird dying in the cold was supposed to remind readers to be miserable. The cover refers to a long poem taking up the first two inside pages of the issue within.

Chatterbox was one of the first story papers, starting in 1866. I distinguish these from the penny dreadfuls that were most popular from the 1830’s to 1890’s by the fact that story papers were not horror-focused, and often had more than one story in them (the penny dreadfuls were just a chapter of one long story – of course it was not only ‘dreadful’ stories that were published in this way, the work of Dickens was originally too!). Of course most, but not all, of the early story papers were Christian focused, or else they had only the loosest credibility by being published by the same people who were churning out the penny dreadfuls!

Chatterbox was a bit different, it had more high-minded, ‘straight’ adventure stories without ghosts or ghouls. It also had informative articles and shorter stories about naughty children repenting. It was started by a reverend – J. Erskine Clarke, M.A. so in a way anticipated the Boys’ Own Paper of 1879 and The Eagle of 1950. This 1874-5 volume is of course loaded down with Jesus, but later volumes became more secular, reflecting the attitudes of their age. The first really old book I bought was the 1908 volume of Chatterbox which is a great deal less pious. Chatterbox actually ran all the way up until 1955, though by the end it was just a series of adventure story annuals, and virtually indistinguishable from any of the other “Grand Book for Boys” publications.

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By Jingo!

It’s 1897 now, and this is the Christmas edition of The Marvel (which began in 1893 as The Halfpenny Marvel and gave us Sexton Blake). Where the older story papers were content to just be an alternative to the penny dreadfuls, Alfred Harmsworth’s halfpenny story papers were a clear shot across the bows of these gruesome horror stories. By 1900 the penny dreadfuls were holed below the waterline. Though in the early days of the Harmsworh papers the stories were not all that brilliant, and one wag wrote them off as “Halfpenny dreadfullers”.

Another way that Harmsworh’s story papers differed from the older story papers was their jingoism. By the 1890’s church had been replaced by state in the affections of the people and the empire had become something to be widely celebrated. Harmsworth’s papers captured the mood of this age, and  how better to show it but than with this cover? Santa does not introduce us to presents, or a dickensian scene, but to a host of British troops on the march, “Jack Tar” to the fore and surrounding Britannia on a white charger. We’ll not see the likes of this again until… well until i do a Christmas issue of one of my comics.

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Oops, no cover

Into the twentieth century now, with the 1901 Christmas issue of The Boys’ Friend – except the cover is missing! The Boys’ Friend only had black and white printing most of the time, but relatively frequent “double numbers” (the Christmas and Spring ones being regular fixtures) would have a beautiful colour cover, and double the page count (pst, and also double the price!). Double numbers were also chosen to introduce new serial stories.

The serial was the stock-in-trade of the tabloid-sized Boys’ Friend which started as a halfpenny paper in 1895. The serial stories, large size and cheap paper make collecting The Boys’ Friend very difficult today, may I add! Each issue also had a long complete story of 10,000 words, though, and many of these are great reads. The large size of the paper and tiny type used allowed for very long stories to be told, and also for large and lavish illustrations. To my mind this is one of the greatest of all British comics!

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How, um traffic was a nightmare

Now it’s 1913 and time for another lavish Boys’ Friend double number. This one with it’s wonderful cover intact. The content inside was much the same, a long complete story, ongoing serials, new serials with extra-long opening instalments, and the Editor’s page. I ought to say something for the editor’s page of the Boys’ Friend (and very-similar Boys Herald and Boys’ Realm, which started in the 1900’s and were cancelled in the 20’s), the editor would give well-meaning, and well-researched advice to his readers. He would also give long and friendly replies to readers, try to help them with problems (usually this help involved the purchasing of other Amalgamated press publications or books, ahem) and regularly advise on the dangers of smoking, drinking, gambling, rash emigration to the colonies and going to sea “for an adventure” without thinking it through – all pitfalls that it was all to easy for children to fall into in those days!

Compare this for a second to the letter’s pages of the comics i was growing up with in the 90’s – that is The Beano, The Dandy, Sonic the Comic and a bit later the Judge Dredd Megazine – in those readers were lucky if the reply to their letter was more than a single line. And that single line usually just contained some terrible pun. The Boys’ Friend – Best British comic ever.

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Anyone for footer?

Followed closely by this one! The Union Jack started in 1894 as a virtually-identical story paper to The Halfpenny Marvel. In 1904 it became “Sexton Blake’s own paper” and that detective featured in every issue from then on. Now 10 years later Europe is in the grip of a huge war that many people predicted would be over by Christmas. It wasn’t, as this issue shows! The story revolves around a gentleman falling into disgrace and joining up as an ordinary soldier to seek his own death.

This paper gives the lie to the oft-repeated notion that “popular magazines” during the World War 1 would portray the trenches as a grand life of camping, cricket and then short, easy battles where you would get to “account for” scores of the beastly Hun. This was only the case for the first month or so of the conflict, as it drew on writers became a lot more realistic. The stories in this issue certainly don’t make life in the trenches sound desirable – if anything they exaggerate the horrors! One passage talks of soldiers “fighting for hours waist-deep in freezing water”, which they couldn’t have really done, it’s biologically impossible! Unless you want your legs sawn off afterwards. It’s not exactly discouraging either though. There was after all the need to actually win the thing, so the story emphasises that whilst you may not like your duty, every patriotic Briton must do his best to discharge it.

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For the glory of the School Soviet, comrades!

Now it’s 1921, and the Nelson Lee Library. This was an odd one – a size roughly equivalent to the modern(ish) A5 and with quite a high page count, it carried complete stories about Nelson Lee in each issue. Nelson Lee was a detective who first appeared in the 1890’s, and was not greatly different to Sexton Blake at the time. However by the 1920’s things have rather changed a bit! Nelson Lee is now working as a schoolmaster at St Frank’s boarding school. He isn’t undercover – everybody knows he is a detective, and his boy assistant, Nipper, is a pupil at the school.

This unique setup allowed for the stories to waver between “Billy Bunter”-esque dorm feeds and practical jokes, to serious stories of solving murders and foiling gangs, with ease. Often these two elements would coexist in the same story, and the various boys of the school (not quite the fantastic characterisations of Charles Hamilton, but very close) would often take a hand in the solving of the mystery. Another remarkable aspect of the Nelson Lee library was that it was one huge serial – for decades the main story (it also carried more conventional serials – often 2 or 3 at a time!), while complete in each issue, followed on from the previous one and anticipated the next. Of course these were split into ‘series’ too (in the same way as some, but not all, Sexton Blake stories in the Union Jack were in the 20’s and 30’s) but even then a minor plot element in one series would become a major focus in another.

Oh, yeah, this particular issue is part of one of the more famous series in the Nelson Lee’s history – the “Schoolboy Soviet” series, in which a few boys, inspired by the revolution in Russia, turn the school into a communist state! Of course this descends into tyranny and starvation and they eventually welcome their rightful ‘rulers’, the teachers, back. Unfortunatley I don’t own the whole of this series, so i can’t read it, yet! Anybody got the issues that came directly after the one that was actually named “The Schoolboy Soviet”?

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The flash and old ink is only partly responsible – the cover really is that gloomy!

Now it’s 1925 and we’re back with the Nelson Lee Library. “Snow on the logo” is a long-standing British Comic tradition but in some of these old publications it looked like the wrong kind of snow – not the  soft white stuff you can look out at from your warm room on Christmas day, but the freezing, slippery stuff that your car skids on as you slowly crawl to work on a gloomy November’s morning.

The story in this issue is rather more lighthearted (well from the quick flick I had when i took it out to photograph it, anyway). Several of the boys from St Frank’s end up at an uninhabited stately home for Christmas, with only one butler and no food! But they suspect the castle is haunted – especially when a huge feast seemingly appears by a miracle on the dining table that was completely bare only half an hour before. I doubt it’s worth betting that the ‘ghost’ turns out to be Nelson Lee playing a Christmas prank and that a jolly holiday of crackling fires and gigantic cakes ends the tale.

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Christmas in space

Now it’s the 1950’s and we’ve never had it so good – Photogravure printing of art and writing that well deserves it, a genius artist firing on all cylinders and a minutely-researched science-fiction tale where British pluck, and not technobabble, reversed polarities and sonic screwdrivers wins the day! This is the first Christmas issue of The Eagle – a title that hardly needs introduction. It was created by a Reverend and intended to kill off the popular horror comics of the time. Sound familiar?

Of course I don’t own the actual issue, this is just a reproduced cover in a book about the comic’s most famous character – Dan Dare! They really pulled out all the stops on ‘decorating’ this cover, with holly between the panels!

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Ahh the festive tradition of poisonous gas – bring back the dying Robin!

Now it’s 1952 and Dan Dare still adorns the cover of The Eagle, which is still at the top of it’s game. It hit the ground running and barely faltered for 10 years! This issue isn’t quite so christmas-ey, no holly between the panels. Mind you the snow on the logo is now present and correct.

 Dan Dare and The Eagle copyrighted, trademarked and sole property of The Dan Dare Corporation PLC LTD KGB NKVD 1950-perpetuity. No infringement, expungement or disengagement of the copyright solely owned by the Dan Dare Corporation is hereby expressed, implied or implicated. Use of photographs of covers of The Eagle, copyright of the Dan Dare Corporation 1950-perpetuity, complies with the fair use law regarding critcism and/or review.

And I managed to make a whole post that didn’t involve Chums!

Misleading covers!

The old adage “never judge a book by it’s cover” certainly held true for two i recently read. Both of them were bought in Lincoln, where i went to university and recently had to return to to sort out some odds and ends. Lincoln has many great book shops but, unfortunatley, the best one is closed on Wednesdays and i completely forgot until i was about 5 steps from the door. I also discovered another good one has been replaced by a kitchen shop. Between that and the loss of BMC this recession hasn’t been a good time for old book lovers… but the show must go on!

The Fellow Who Won

This book is from “Nelson’s Travel Series” and has a cover depicting a Canadian mountie or Australian bushman…

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“You forgot about the Kiwi’s, mate”

So obviously the story is about… a public school, in England. To be fair there is a small amount of “travelling” done in the first few chapters.  The heroes of the tale, kept in detention for not paying enough attention to their latin, escape from the window and ‘borrow’ a boat belonging to a nearby baronet, only to be left stranded on an island in the middle of a river that runs through his estate.

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Not much enforcement of uniform rules at this school, clearly. And is that a beehive haircut?

The story mainly concerns the ups and downs of two boys at the school, John Richard Duncan – Ned to his friends – and Edwin Field. Ned is the adopted son of the headmaster, and expected to take over the school one day – a prospect that doesn’t fill him with joy, as he is no good at “books” and much prefers sport, being captain of all the school teams. Field on the other hand is distantly related to the head.

Over the course of the story’s fifty chapters, they- yes, fifty.

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Though most of them are only a few pages long.

Anyway, over the course of the fifty chapters Field is determined to get his revenge for a prank Ned plays on him right at their very first meeting, when he and his friends throw Field into a tree. Soon field is overtaking everybody in their studies, annoying the headmaster even more with the contrast to Ned. Ned remains popular with the school in general, and nobody can touch him at sports, so Field resents him even more and tries various plans to ruin him… including throwing a sheet of notes with forged handwriting onto Ned’s desk at exam time, causing the teachers to think he is “cribbing”. Ned escapes this charge and narrowly passes the exam, however.

Most of the chapters deal with this rivalry between the two boys, but there are also some extra amusing short stories thrown in, such as Ned and a friend called Ranger getting lost during a “fox chase” (a fake hunt after human ‘foxes’ laying a trail with paper) and falling in a canal, Ned’s determination saves both their lives. There’s also a chapter about a young boy with toothache being too scared to see the dentist (the waiting room is described as having paintings of battles on the walls “to prepare the patients for the horrors to come”!), so some others attempt to extract his tooth themselves using home-made chloroform! But it is too diluted and has no effect, so he decided to go and see the real dentist after all.

The story then jumps forwards two years, and Field has become a terrible bully. Ned finally snaps and gives him the caning of his life… despite the fact Field is in fact in the form above! Ned escapes expulsion simply because he has nowhere to go, but a fake letter and other circumstances arranged by Field makes him decide to run away from the school and consider emigrating to Canada – which is as close as the story comes to what is on the cover!

The baronet from the beginning of the story steps in at the last minute and Ned returns to the school, in time to save Field’s life during a gale. After this he convinces the head to hand over the school to Field, who is much more intelligent, and let him start out on his own in the world. The tale ends with Ned and Field meeting again on a ship ten years afterwards… and that’s all i’ll say about the ending should anybody out there be interested enough to want to seek out this book for themselves.

Anyway i was actually originally going to blog about this book for an entirely different reason to the misleading cover. In fact for the reason i bought the book in the first place, just look at this:

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Inscriptions from both world wars!

And people say those things “devalue” books!

The Schoolboy Speed Kings

After reading that book, i started on this one. As i read it i discovered that again the cover was barking up the wrong tree…

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A speedy-looking aeroplane…

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And a Mountie again, this time dropping by parachute!

So clearly the story is about… a public school in England. But with boys that are interested in… er, racing cars. Not a flying machine in sight! This time it is a school called Spandrels, located a few miles from the real-life racing track Brooklands (which is now, ironically, an air museum). Some senior boys, including the prefects and a boy called Slade, who figures heavily in the story to follow, break bounds and sneak into the circuit by an overhanging tree to watch the racing.

As they watch one of the cars flies off the track and right over them, to crash nearby. All pretence of secrecy forgotten they rush over to help the driver, but he is OK.

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Nice soft heather to land on! The binding is still pretty good so i needed to hold the pages open with something.

To their horror they see the headmaster and some strangers in the milling crowd around the crashed car, but luckily they sneak away. However on the way back the strangers, in their fine sports car, stop and ask directions to the school.

One of the strangers turns out to be a new boy named Herman. He is of some sort of mixed race and doesn’t ‘think’ like a Briton, though most of this is down to the influence of his father and an Italian gangster named Mocatta who appears later. In one part, however, he laments the fact that he, a citizen of the empire, has been refused service in London resturants because of the colour of his skin.

Later various people, including a pair of adventurous junior boys and later on Slade, follow him as he sneaks out of the school at night. His father and Mocatta have hidden a racing car in a cave near the school and he test drives it around the local roads at night! The car is to be entered in “The Gold Cup”, an important upcoming race. Further inside the cave, as the juniors and later Slade discover, is a factory for dismantling stolen cars, printing fake money and various other illegal practices.

Slade is caught prowling around by Mocatta and is forced to join the gang eventually. They have built another car and enter both of them in the Gold Cup – Herman in the Speed King and Slade in the Speed Queen. The other boys break bounds to watch the race and all are caught by the headmaster this time. However Mocatta and Herman SR are on the scene and placate him. Then later Slade is asked by the gangsters to pick up and drop off ‘certian packages’. Another boy called Price is in on the secret (slipping in and out of the school and spending whole nights roaming around outdoors seems to be a common practice by this point!) and rides with him in the car. On the way back they are chased by a policeman for speeding, so Price throws the packages out, the larger one explodes with an earth-shattering roar and leaves a huge crater in the road!

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Boom

At this point the story rather abruptly ends, as some Scotland Yard men show up at the school, and helped by some of the other boys who have decided to stay in bed and not prowl around the countryside (fancy that) round up the Mocatta gang and the Hermans, who they have “been watching for some time” and who prove to have their fingers in nearly every dirty pie.

The ending then briefly explains that Slade became the head prefect of the school (somehow escaping prosecution for speeding, handling stolen goods, drug trafficking and throwing a bomb at a policeman!). The headmaster retires and somebody else takes over the school, who puts Brooklands within bounds and introduces driving and motor engineering into the school’s lessons. Mocatta is deported and the Hermans leave the country voluntarily. A better ending might have been for Herman JR to stay at the school,  shake off the criminal ways he was bought up to follow, and become a decent member of society. Oh well, this was the 30’s! (well the book is undated but motor-cars seem commonplace in it, and it’s certainly pre-war, so that decade seems a good bet).