#280: The Man Who Wasn’t There – An Unseen Side to Sexton Blake in Model for Murder (1952) by Derek Howe Smith

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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.

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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!”.

Anyway…

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.

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“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.

23 thoughts on “#280: The Man Who Wasn’t There – An Unseen Side to Sexton Blake in Model for Murder (1952) by Derek Howe Smith

  1. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I’m presuming it’s ok for me to ‘Imperfect Crime’ before ‘Model for Murder’, and ‘Model for Murder’ before Come to Paddington Fair’ – no cross-universe spoilers? I’m hoping to leave ‘Paddington Fair’ as my last encounter with Derek Smith… Would I need to know anything about Sexton Blake, etc., before reading the Sexton Blake stories? I’ve not actually encountered him.

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    • It was sort of my intent to give as much detail as anyone would need about Sexton Blake in the above, so you should be fine for the reading of MfM. Sure, you wo’t have the context of how poor the other stories are, but that’s probably a sacrifice you’re happy to make.

      As for in-universe crossover, no, you’re fine. ‘The Imperfect Crime’ is very much not set in the same universe as the others, and nothing make any explicit mention of developments elsewhere (even CtPF only briefly mentions WUtD in that classically GAD sweeping “You were on that Querrin thing, weren’t you?” way). All of it in any order is completely safe.

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      • I’m glad to hear that the two Sexton Blake stories are good too. I’ve only read ‘Whistle up the Devil’, and thought it was very good. In fact, I thought Smith was the true predecessor of Halter, rather than Carr… 😀

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        • Only this one is Sexton Blake — ‘The Imperfect Crime’ is simply a standalone thing. Apologies if I gave that impression…

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  2. Sounds quite interesting. I’ve never read any Sexton Blake stories, although I do have a few omnibus collections on my shelves simply because I thought i probably ought to, and understood they were a bit juvenile.

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    • For all their junvenalia, there’s a disturbingly gritty and unpleasant air to some of the Blake stories — I wouldn’t say they were designed as purely kid’s reading based on some of the plots, but there’s a distinctly…let’s go with “kiddish” taint to how they resolve themselves (the kidnap vitim is found and Blake has a fight with someone) that reeks of what would become Saturday morning cartoons for our generation.

      Maybe it’s the late-Victorian origin to them, when there were fewer scruples or concerns about pigeon-holing something in a particular market — there’s a real brutality in some of what the villains do, almost because it’s a nice short-hand to make you realise how eeeeeevil they are. They’re interesting peiod pieces for oh-so-many reasons, but there’s nothing I’d call exclusively and unconditionally good; anything worth your time is that way because of about 14 caveats.

      Others, however, may disagree…

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  3. I need to check your tweets more frequently… Just espied an update pertaining to a new short story collection by LRI – exciting! 😀

    Incidentally, I’ve just finished ‘The Word is Murder’, and I look forward to your imminent review…?

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    • The Word is Murder isn’t thunderingly imminent here, no, mainly because I won’t have the book until after I’ve attended one of the signings Horowitz is doing. It is forthcoming as a review or think piece or epic poem or something, but not in the immediate future.

      And, yeah, The Realm of the Impossible sounds amazing — new impossible crime stories! What’s not to love??!!

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    • If not JJ, then me, John! The book is winging its way stateside to me as we speak and it will be read and digested forthwith . . . alongside the Zeck trilogy, Carter Dickson, a biography of Ellery Queen, and the book about Agatha Christie’s plays. My review should be out by late September . . . 2019.

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  4. Your review makes me regret I opted for the single printing of Come to Paddington Fair and ignored the omnibus edition, because I already had a copy of Whistle Up the Devil on my shelves. The prospect of a Sexton Blake novel simply did not appeal to me, but now wish I had picked up the omnibus.

    Oh well. I’ll console myself with the upcoming locked room anthology by LRI. It’s a bit on the thin side, only 400 odd pages, but I’ll manage. 🙂

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    • Well, the Kindle edition of the omnibus is a bit cheaper than the paperback…could always invest in that…

      As for the LRI collection: I know, right? 400+ pages of new, previously uncollected, first-time English translations of impossible crime stories both fictional and real. Man, what a disappointment… 😛

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      • I suppose we have to be grateful for the scraps that are thrown our way and, if we ration this upcoming anthology cleverly, it can last, like, three whole days or something.

        Why is my old self from the 2000s yelling at me for being a insufferable, spoiled brat?

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  5. I don’t know if my enjoyment was as high as you. I certainly liked it, but it was the weak spot of the collection, but it had high bars to clear. I think I remember thinking that this wasn’t really *that* thought-provoking, and that the normal audience should have been fine with it. But there I go, overestimating, maybe. 😛 (There’s also a contradiction I think, but spoilers ho.)

    And what is everyone talking about with this new LRI collection? I’ll scoop it up, certainly, but the actual site appears to be down for everyone but me.

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    • Hmmm, a contradiction you say? Apart from that thing with the keyhole I don’t remember one, but I’m not ecatly renowned for my spotting of detail and I’d love to know wat you have in mind.

      And, sure, no doubt this wasn’t on par with the Algy Lawrence novels, but maybe this is again just my being able to magae expectations in advance: I was going into it from a Sexton Blake perspective (it precedes his own original characters) and wasn’t anticipating the locked room matching those masterpieces. And you have to admit, the revelations that come at the end are superbly handled and beautifully fair play. If someone did this in a standard GAD novel we’d all be delighted.

      The LRI short story collection is linked in my Twitter feed, so see if that takes you through to the appropriate page. Long story short (ha, I realise what I just did there) it sounds amazing.

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      • I don’t think the link to the LRI website on the tweets work; only the link to Amazon.co.uk works. I’m hoping that a Kindle edition will be produced. 🙂

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        • Oh, that’s weird. The link to the LRI website — when it worked — specifically mentioned that no Kindle version will be available.

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        • The Locked Room International site is back up, BTW, if you want to go and read about the RotI collection there. The very final line of the post about it confirms there will be no Kindle edition.

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      • I’ll have to spoil it. 😛

        SPOILERS

        There’s a bit where Raven sees Blake and some other guy walk out of a lawyer’s office, then calls his boss saying that the two are catching on. All well and good, except that the lawyer in question is the boss! Why is he calling to tell his boss/partner that the heroes just had a conversation with said boss/partner.

        END SPOILERS

        The collection looks interesting, but I wish I could actually get at the table of contents from the Amazon preview.

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        • Haha, I have a feeling you’re right; I seem to recall thinking his boss was actually another character and so this went unnoticed. I guess it’s a bluff to the reader on those grounds, but you’re correct in it not making sense. Ho-hum.

          I know Amazon usually takes a while to get the “look inside” feature up and running on new books — though, in fairness, they probably list ablout 17 billion new books every day. Though since it’s my understanding that most if not all of these stories are copletely new English translations I’m not sure what you intend to learn from the titles; don’t worry, ‘The Sands of Thyme’ definitely isn’t in there 😛

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        • The “look inside” feature has since been introduced for The Realm of the Impossible. Unfortunately, the table of contents is not included in the sample pages shown. Hence, for the curious, I give below the list of the 26 short stories:
          1. Jacob’s Ladder by Paul Halter (France)
          2. Cyanide in the Sun by Christianna Brand (U.K)
          3. Windfall by Ulf Durling (Sweden)
          4. The Case of the Horizontal Trajectory by Joseph Skvoreck (Czech Republic)
          5. The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express by Freeman Wills Crofts (Ireland)
          6. Dead Man in the Scrub by Mary Fortune (Australia)
          7. The Hidden Law by Melville Davisson Post (United States)
          8. House Call by Alexandre Dumas (France)
          9. The Twelve Figures of the World by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares (Argentina)
          10. Rhampsinitos and the Thief by Herodotus (Greece)
          11. The Martian Crown Jewels by Paul Anderson (Outer Space)
          12. Leaving No Evidence by Dudley Hoys (Lebanon)
          13. The Venom of the Tarantula by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay (India)
          14. Sir Gilbert Murrell’s Picture by Victor L. Whitechurch (U.K)
          15. The Miracle on Christmas Eve by Szu Yen Lin (China/Taiwan)
          16. Seven Brothers (extract) by Alexsis Kivi (Finland)
          17. Lying Dead and Turning Cold by by Afonso Carreiro (Portugal)
          18. The “Impossible” Impossible Crime by Edward D. Hoch (Canada)
          19. The Locked Tomb Mystery by Elizabeth Peters (Egypt)
          20. Deadfall by Samuel W. Taylor (United States)
          21. The Lure of the Green Door by Rintaro Norizuki (Japan)
          22. The Barese Mystery by Pietro De Palma (Italy)
          23. The Witch Doctor’s Revenge by Jochen Fuseler (Germany)
          24. All the Birds of the Air by Charles B. Child (Iraq)
          25. The Warder of the Door by L.T. Meads and Robert Eustace (Ireland)
          26. The Locked House of Pythagoras by Soji Shimada (Japan)

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        • Nice work!

          Incidentally, the Herodotus will mark two stories selected by TomCat for Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums that have since made it into “proper” anthologies, the other being Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost Special’ turning up in the Miraculous Mysteries collection from the British Library.

          Delighted to see more Soji Shimada, too. Thought more of his stuff might follow in the wake of Pushkin publishing The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, but nothing’s come of it, so it’s great to see LRI once again stepping into the breach.

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