The Sexton Blake Library turns 100

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I don’t actually own this, I nicked the pic off an Ebay auction years ago

 The Sexton Blake library was the longest-running publication to contain stories of Sexton Blake – who, by the time it was launched in 1915, had already been around for 22 years – and had been appearing in the Union Jack every week for 11 of those (plus extra serials and short stories in the Boys’ Friend, Boys’ Realm, Penny Popular, Answers etc etc). There had also been a few longer, book-length stories in the Boys’ Friend Library. But, in 1915, Sexton Blake was given a library all his own!

I don’t know the exact date the first issue went on sale, but it was sometime in September. Somebody with a collection of Amalgamated Press publications for that year might be able to find an advert with a specific date, though. The first issue was The Yellow Tiger, and cost 3d. It was a “yellow peril” story, with wartime elements; the “minister of munitions” is kidnapped, and at one point, Blake & co are held up by a German submarine (at this point, they would surface and use their deck guns on unarmed ships). Wu Ling, basically the Sexton Blake version of Fu Manchu*, teams up with another guy called Baron De Beauremon, who leads a gang called The Council of Eleven. Many super villains had been established in the Union Jack stories, by now, and Blake regularly had to fight team-ups, like an evil “Avengers”! Anyway, the story is one of the best in the Sexton Blake saga, with loads of fist fights, gun fights, plane chases, ship chases, captures and rescues. But copies of issue 1 of the SBL are very rare and expensive…

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Fortunately, the first four issues were reprinted (apparently very hastily – many spelling mistakes!) in this book. The Sexton Blake Detective Library, published by Hawk Books (who also reprinted some Eagle material, and had a very familiar logo) in 1989. Being considerably easier to find, and considerably cheaper, to boot (I got it in a Mind charity shop, for £1), it’s a great introduction to the world of Sexton Blake. The first four SBL stories are all vintage Blakiana – master villains, devious disguises, journeys to exotic lands and conspiracies that nearly ruin innocent victims, until Sexton Blake comes through! The book also contains an extensive introduction (still more-or-less “up to date”, there’s been precious little additional Blake material since 1989, and only one “official” new story!). There’s also several pages of cover pictures from various story papers, including full-page reproductions of the first four SBL issues, though the quality is, erm…

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Not colour filtered in any way, only brightness and contrast!

Still, the introduction reproduces several illustrations from the Blake saga, many by prolific Union Jack artist Eric Parker – who also did a large number of Library covers:

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And, to round it off, a reproduced comic strip from Knockout. There was a later and (now) better-known Sexton Blake comic strip in Valiant, but that was rubbish – the plots were Scooby Doo esque ghost investigations, and not even original! They were re-drawn, and slightly re-worded, copies of a modern-day ghost hunting strip from Buster.

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This is the real stuff!

Anyway, the SBL’s publication schedule was initially just one issue a month (there was, after all, a war on. It didn’t affect the paper supply nearly as badly as World War 2, though. At least, not to begin with). By 1916/17, the schedule appears to have increased to two or three per month (“digests”, like the SBL, BFL, and today’s Commando, generally come out in ‘batches’. Though the My Weekly and People’s Friend libraries come out every two weeks). But 1917 paper shortages saw the page count drop from the initial 120 to just 72. By 1919, with the war over, the library went up to four issues per month (five per month for most of 1922, but it dropped again, at the beginning of the following year), and stayed that way until the paper shortages of World War 2 again hampered it.

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The oldest one I actually own is from 1917… features a train chase across Argentina!

In 1925, “Series 2” of the library began, though it wasn’t much different (not even a price increase, it had gone up to 4d in 1918). The golden age of Sexton Blake encompassed the post-WW1 period until the mid 1930’s, at which point a time known in Blakian circles as “the lean years” began (heralded, more or less, by the death of Union Jack in 1933 – it was replaced by the less-glamorous Detective Weekly, though the very first series of Blake tales to run in that was a belter).

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A late issue in series 1, and an early issue from series 2. 

There’s actually a new “Blackshirts”, having a meeting somewhere in my county today. But, though they claim to have “no policy” on homosexuality, I’m still too scared to go.

In 1940, wartime pressures saw the SBL increase it’s price from 4d to 4½d. It was also reduced to three, and then two, issues per month. In 1941, the third series began, with a whole 1½d leap to 6d! By this point, stories of supervillains and epic adventures were out, and hunts for spies and war profiteers were in. Uninspiring titles like “The Scrap Metal Mystery” hid tales that are still of use to social historians (or just people who want to soak in the atmosphere of a long-gone age), being more concerned with the trials of everyday life in those dark times. Paper shortages also saw the page count drop from 96 to 64. Some issues containted two short stories, instead of one long one, in an attempt to keep things varied.

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The library remained at two issues per month until December 1950, when it finally returned to it’s pre-war publication level. In the late 1940’s, it began to take on a more ‘standardised’ look. First, the title of the story was in a blue bar on the cover. This was soon replaced with the title being written in yellow, often in a red block. This look endured for many years.

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The stories were still of the more “ordinary crime” type. There’s lots of house parties where a shot suddenly rings out, impossible murders in a locked room, or some poor guy being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of the golden-age supervillains made occasional appearances, though, but the days of them raising private armies and trying to destabilise the west were more or less over (or just didn’t seem so romantic, after two people had managed to do exactly that, a few years earlier!). Again, though the stories of this period didn’t live up to the epics of the golden age, many of them are still interesting mysteries in their own right. The odd secret mission behind the Iron Curtain harks back to the spy capers of the world wars, too.

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In 1956, the at-first-unofficial (the editor later ‘retconned’ it) fourth series began, with No. 359, “Frightened Lady”. By now, the library was 10d, and had a red bar down one side of the cover. The cover artwork was a lot more “suggestive”, often with glamorous women showing a lot of leg! This sort of thing continued on the inside, too. Sexton Blake moved from his cosy baker street home to offices in Berkeley Square, and a secretary called Paula Dane – who often assists him on cases, sidelining Tinker to a cameo appearance at the very beginning or end. Tinker also dropped his old “street arab” nickname, preferring to be called Edward Carter. These changes all became known as the “New Order”.

The plots started to feature more gruesome hints of torture and brutality – and romance and hints of sex also began to make an appearance (though were then toned down in 1957, when the Obscene Publications Act threatened). A spymaster called Eustace Craille was introduced, and Blake was once again jetting off around the world (on jets, not steamships, too!), fighting master villains – though these were more in the cold war, James Bond mould. Most of the stories were still murder mysteries, set “at home”, though. Oh, there was also a few tales featuring “flashbacks” to World War 2 – and, it turns out, these are the only New Order stories I have! So I can’t show you any of the “leggy” covers. The New Order war stories were in that grim, gritty style that characterised the lurid war paperbacks of the 50’s and 60’s – and the early issues of War Picture Library and Commando – written by men who had actually been there!

Anyway, series 4 ran into the 1960’s with the James Bond-ish stuff increasing slightly. There was even a cod-golden-age story called The World Shakers, about an ex-Nazi supervillain who has built a fleet of flying saucers! This was written by “Desmond Reid”, who was an interesting character. At some point, the format was also stretched upwards, going from “Library” size to “Paperback” size. Though still only 64 pages!

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The “regular” Sexton Blake library came to an end in 1963, with the story The Last Tiger. The New Order did a lot of re-writing to Blake’s back-story, and it’s almost tempting to believe the return of the word “Tiger” in the title was a happy accident, rather than intentional! Anyway, this was another “yellow peril” story – this time, the villains are Japanese soldiers who don’t realise the war is over, and are using a “tractor beam” to kidnap airliners. Sexton Blake ends the tale proposing to Paula Dane, and writes a letter to the readers on the back cover, in which he reveals he has the middle initial “T”, and says that “nobody seems to have met” Desmond Reid. This is probably because he doesn’t exist! It was a fake name, used for editor-reworked stories, or just to cover up an author’s name, if they had written too many stories in a short period. Still, that didn’t stop his photo appearing in The World-Shakers! They chose a picture of some actor who looks like a right spiv.

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Anyway, after 1964 passed Blake-less, the fifth series of the Sexton Blake library appeared in 1965, this time published by Mayflower-Dell. This time, they were in the standard paperback format – tall and narrow, with around 150 pages. But the type was considerably larger, so the story length was probably about the same. These came out at the rate of two per month, and initially cost 2/6 (quite a jump from the 1/- The Last Tiger cost!), though soon went up to 3/6. Some of these were terrible, though others are alright. Some follow the New Order mould, with Berkeley Square and Paula Dane, while others feature Blake plodding about his office, smoking a pipe while being fed by his housekeeper, Mrs Bardell. Several of them are very 60’s, with twangy pop bands (and hysterical fans) and hippies present and correct. This series lasted until 1968, ending with Down Among the Ad Men.

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Howard Baker, the last editor of the regular SBL, was, by this time, reprinting loads of old Amalgamated Press material (he kept it up until the 1980’s). This included hardback Sexton Blake omnibus books, reprinting two issues (mainly from series 4 and 5) at a time. In 1969, four new stories appeared, in the same hardback format, and apparently costing a whopping 16/- (or 18/- or “90p”… erm…). Those were the last “official” Sexton Blake stories published (except for a TV show adaption in 1972), and the end of the SBL…

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Until 2014! A company called Obverse Books launched series six of the Library. This time, it’s a “series” of “quarterly” hardbacks, retailing at a whopping £20 each! Containing one original story, and one reprint from the archives. I say “series” and “quarterly”, because there has actually only been one issue, so far, and that came out more than a year ago. Looks like they’re not going to “make the century” with a new issue this month. But “insiders” report that the second book is on it’s way… slowly!

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I think series 6 is far too well-bound and irregular to be truly classified as a story paper, though. Oh, for “that” Euromillions win. I’d buy up the copyright and have cheap, Commando-sized issues pumping out like a shot! Oh well, if the newest issue of my favourite “comic” won’t come out in September 2015, at least my third favourite will…

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Better go and buy it, quick!

Reference: As with pretty much anything to do with Sexton Blake, I inevitably made use of Mark Hodder’s Blakiana website: http://www.mark-hodder.com/Blakiana/ , he pretty much wrote this entry for me XD.

*-At one point, at least, Amalgamated Press were actually publishing stories of both characters, but they didn’t meet. Until 2009 – when Mark Hodder did a fanfic! Fu Manchu and Wu Ling are mortal enemies, though. They both want to take over China, and use her mass of people to take over the world. Mind you, if you ask me, Fu Manchu’s green-tinted skin and sideways eyelids hint at him coming from rather further away…

2 Comments

  1. As well as assisting the “guv’nor”, as he called Blake, Tinker kept Blake’s crime files up to date with clippings from the daily newspapers, in addition to assisting Blake in his fully equipped crime laboratory.

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