Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper by Mark Hodder
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper by Mark Hodder (Sexton Blake Library, 6th Series, Issue 1, contains the original titular story plus a reprint of “The Wireless Telephone Clue” by G H Teed which was first published in 1922 (Obverse Books, 2014). This takes me back to my youth in the 1950s when I was just getting into my stride with the early adventure and what then passed for thriller fiction. As fast as I could find copies of their work, I was devouring Sax Rohmer, Sapper, Leslie Charteris, Dornford Yates, and a host of others — that was until I discovered the American magazines which signalled, I’m sad to say, a partial abandonment of British thriller and detective fiction in favour of science fiction, horror and fantasy. However, one of the more enduring favorites proved to be the Sexton Blake series. With more than four-thousand stories to work through, I was never going to run out of new material. Then I discovered the films and along came the television series in the 1960s. The television series lacked the wit of The Avengers, but it was a good second best. All of this nostalgia comes into play because Mark Hodder has produced the first new contribution to this series in fifty years. If you’re a fan, this is a red-letter day. If you’ve not previously encountered this heroic sleuth, this is what you need to know.
Sexton Blake, like Sherlock Holmes, occupies rooms on Baker Street and has a housekeeper who, like Mrs Malaprop before her, has a tendency to mangle her words. If nothing else, this introduces a note of levity into the proceedings. There are two key differences between Blake and Holmes. Blake is very much the man of action who takes on a series of individual criminals and gangs, often with an international dimension involving both conventional crime and espionage. Whereas Holmes is into the collection of clues and deductive reasoning, Blake tends to be more intuitive and, although he does depend on solving mysteries, they tend to be more superficial as befits the adventure/thriller genre.
So in this new story, we’re off and running with one of these 1920s-style slightly science fictional plots in which the dwarfish superbrain working for the Ministry of Defence has created the weapon to end all wars. This is a variety of disintegrating ray which, when held in a relatively stable position, is capable of reducing all in its path to their constituent atoms (or something along those lines). The British naturally have the theory that once this weapon is demonstrated to all interested parties, no-one will challenge the Empire’s hegemony and we will embark on a new era of peace in our time. Our hero has just returned from a jaunt on which he discovered the Ring of Solomon. With the Middle East in a state of ferment, it would be inconvenient if this news was released, so the British government decides to lock it away in a secret vault constructed under the Rock of Gibraltar. To get it there, the Government detaches the latest military airship from its duties as the carrier of this new secret weapon, and so puts all pieces in play. A collector supervillain wants the ring but, when he discovers he might also acquire the weapon, he’s quickly into action. The rest of the story has Blake and his sidekick Tinker fighting the Gentleman, an expert at opening safes, and the Three Musketeers, recently released from prison. The result is one of these very nicely constructed period plots in which our dynamic duo put spanners in the criminal works as we float back and forth between London and Gibraltar. It’s all good clean fun.
“The Wireless Telephone Clue” was the first story in which the Three Musketeers appeared as burglars and robbers fit to terrorise London society. At one level, this is a very simple linear story of three gentlemen thieves who prey on their own class and are making a very good living out of it until, quite by chance, Blake sees two of the most recently stolen items on sale and Tinker hears something unusual on the airwaves. The best way to describe the story is unpretentious. So often, those who write fiction believe they must add detail and pad out the plot. This is efficient in setting the scene, showing how the burglars commit their crimes, and finally watching Blake track them down. There’s nothing very clever about the “detective” side of things. Random chance gives him the information and he and Tinker act upon it to recover much of the stolen loot.
Looking at these two stories in the cold light of 2014, I can understand why the young me would have hoovered up adventure-style thrillers like this. They are very undemanding reads with moderately inventive plots and a bare minimum of action (usually avoiding the more modern habit of explicit violence). The new story by Mark Hodder is slightly knowing and so more fun. The reprint is typical of 1920s fiction and good as far as it goes. So let’s cut to the chase. You do not buy books like this as great literature. They are published as a form of service. There are some characters like the Saint, Bulldog Drummond and Nayland Smith who ought to be remembered as they were originally written. Too often, as in the case of the Saint, their image has been dented by Hollywood. Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper should be read by oldies like me who enjoy the buzz of nostalgia, and by newcomers who want the chance to see what was top of the literary pops up to ninety years ago. I enjoyed the experience.
For reviews of the first five Burton and Swinburne books by Mark Hodder, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
The Return of the Discontinued Man
There’s also a standalone called A Red Sun Also Rises.
And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.