A year before the publication of locked room masterpiece Whistle Up the Devil (1953), and possibly just to get his eye in for the writing of a detective story, Derek Smith wrote a story featuring the popular pulp character Sexton Blake. It was never published, and only came to public awareness when John Pugmire compiled the Derek Smith Omnibus in 2014 which comprised Smith’s two novels, the Blake novella Model for Murder, and a short story entitled ‘The Imperfect Crime’.
By the 1950s, Blake was very much a man out of time: the character was created in the 1890s in the wake of the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, and over the decades thousands of stories about him have been written by probably hundreds of authors — the most famous of who these days is probably Gerald Verner, whose own Lattimer Shrive was an equally-shameless Holmes rip-off (though his story ‘The Strange Affair of the Dancing Parson’ is worth running to ground if you can) — yet always retaining that faint, musty, late-Victorian air. Inevitably, so many hands on the character produced a lot of frank dross, and even those considered to be among the better published Sexton Blake stories are thin affairs written at high speed to appease a hungry public that were clichéd and narratively moribund even as they came out of the typewriters that produced them.
So, with this in mind, I can understand why Smith’s own take on the character was never published. Because, see, it’s bloody excellent — it contains all the formula ingredients considered vital after 60 years, yet includes some new ideas and genuine detection that is superbly fair play — and it would have shown up most of what preceded it. Hell, all of what preceded it. This Sexton Blake story that never made it into the public arena is, I’m prepared to venture, the best Sexton Blake story there ever was (I’ve read maybe ten, and none of them are any good).
Traditionally there was a lot more telling than showing in the Blake canon: almost all of Blake’s gargantuan intellect was used off-page as he returned from some thrilling and demanding escapade at the service of the British government so that some hack could crap out a 40,000-word thriller story were something odd happens, Blake and his protegé Tinker have a look at some of the things that resulted, someone gets kidnapped, the bad guys are suitably menacing and unpleasant, and then Blake gets to show his physical prowess by having a fight or (in one case) playing in a game of football at the end. They were undemanding, predictable tales that made the Mike Hammer novels of Mickey Spillane look like high literature, and they generally deserve to be as forgotten as the many, many meals they helped pay for.
Guess the ending…
Smith, then, did a superb job in working in all the tropes that fail to impose anything close to a chronology on this milieu — Blake and Tinker never age, their bloodhound Pedro never gets taken for a walk, their housekeeper Mrs. Bardell opens the door to visitors and cooks meals with robotic regularity — while also bifurcating to include a legitimately fair play detection element that shows Tinker and Blake to actually be capable of ratiocination, and trusts the reader to follow along with a fairly complex scheme that springs a couple of very good surprises on you…it’s possible to feel Smith trying to coax more from a very promising setup: “Come on, we can do better than this, look what’s possible…”. Alas, the weight of history was against him: Sexton Blake wasn’t this and hadn’t been for sixty years, and the traditional detective story was falling from favour; in the words of George Taylor: “Ah! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!”.
The plot for Model for Murder runs approximately thus: artist’s model Linda Martin calls on Sexton Blake to ask him to meet her employer, the artist Leo Garvary, who had received death threats in the mail (carefully, the exact time period is never revealed — we’re in anything from 1890 to 1960). Blake is, in keeping with the expectation discussed above, on another case, and so Tinker obliges the attractive young lady and they head off at once to his studio. Upon arriving, they see Garvary enter his studio, locking the door behind him and, upon being unable to rouse him, force their way in to find the artist shot dead, all the doors and windows bolted, and — of course — no-one else present.
What we get from here is a standard Sexton Blake plot — there are Evil Types who are Unspeakably Nasty, someone is kidnapped, there’s a fight at the end — mixed with a solidly creative piece of fair-play detective fiction plotting and while the eventual locked room trick is a little hoary, there’s so much good work done here to spring the raft of surprises on you some the end that I think it would be extremely short-sighted to dismiss this purely on account of its locked room. We know by know that Smith was a student of this sort of thing (there’s a trapping herein stolen wholesale from The Hollow Man that’s so blatant it can only be used in homage), and this feels, as I said above, like someone getting his eye in rather than trying to shoot his entire batch of originality on something that, in all honesty, probably didn’t deserve it: I’d rather Smith recycle a few traditions here and then give us the brilliance of Whistle up the Devil and Come to Paddington Fair (c. 1954) than have this super original and those disappointingly familiar.
At times, you do feel as if Smith simply wants to get on with things — there’s a door which, we’re told, doesn’t have a keyhole as it bolts from the inside…which two pages later is unlocked with a key (unless I’m missing something) — so that he can try out his clewing and misdirection, and that’s fine with me: both a superb, especially given the lovely hints dropped at things like the bruises on the legs of a man in hospital, or the way a slight slip of the tongue gives someone away. Once the crowd-pleasing fisticuffs with the evildoer are out of the way, we’re treated to a superb piece of extended interpret-and-reinterpret of physical evidence that has all been laid out with scrupulous fairness and, I’m going to wager, will have mostly gone over your head. That’s what we discerning folk are here for, and that’s what Smith provides. The shame of it is, Sexton Blake was never intended for the discerning.
“Oh, so I’m a Holmes rip-off, eh? Well you’re…hello? Hello?”
There’s also evidence of Smith’s very astute written expression, caught in the moments of off-handed violence of his very hissable villain — some of which, even in these desensitised times, made me wince — and little moments of reflection that capture the sinister air piquantly:
He took a match from the box and rasped the head into flame. The focus of fire threw odd shadows around his face as he lighted his cigarette.
It’s an interesting and bold decision, too, to keep Blake off the page for a large part of the opening — Tinker does all the investigating while waiting for the guv’nor to return from that other case, and actually solves the thing before other events interrupt. Imagine Conan Doyle allowing Watson to solve something ahead of Holmes, rather than simply jumping in with a set of immediate assumptions that the Great Detective then dissembles effortlessly — sacrilege! In a nice turn of events, upon Blake’s return he must first reinvestigate everything Tinker has done and then ends up being pulled into a parallel investigation of the same people, giving Blake a chance to make some independent discoveries that forward the plot — there’s very little temporising here, which is again not something you could say about many Blake stories — before Tinker gets to do the whole “gather the suspects and explain” at the end.
It’s not a classic for the ages, no, but it is a legitimately excellent Sexton Blake story that works inside of the accepted milieu while also giving us something new (do not, by the way, take this to be typical of the Blake canon; this is the only Sexton Blake story you need ever read). You get to experience schadenfreude at the villain’s comeuppance (er, spoilers?), will smile at your having missed some of the lovely clues Smith lays down for you, and will wonder just how much brilliant Sexton Blake literature would be available to us now had Smith been successful in this attempt to manumit the characters from the wearying cycle of unchallenged expectations into which they fell so very quickly following their creation. Ah, well, never mind…
I’m starting to think that “What might have been…!” is the true cry of the GAD obsessive. I guess we’ll just have to console ourselves with at least being able to experience this in order to inspire that frustration in the first place.