Monday, September 20, 2010

Wilfred McNeilly's Sexton Blake

I've been reading Sexton Blake Library paperbacks from the 1960s recently. They're as thin as a Terrance Dicks Target novelisation, and come complete with gaudy covers showing a naked woman framed by a a telephoto lens or a screaming pop star partially obscured by lurid green mist. If ever a series shouted out 'cheapo cash-in' the later Sexton Blake stories certainly do.

And they come with a reputation too. A reputation for tackiness and unpleasantness, with Blake - once the nemesis of super-villains and criminal geniuses - reduced to sorting out blackmailers and rapists, finding lost kittens and working for insurance companies. A depressing mix of the utterly mundane and the unnecessarily visceral.

But they're not like that at all, at least in the case of those written by one Wilfred McNeill.

According to a post on the Groovy Age of Horror McNeill was a hard-drinking hack for hire (in the best possible sense), turning out whatever sort of story he was asked and contented that he died with a new advance partially spent on whisky! War stories, tv tie-in novels, horror fiction and Sexton Blake were only part of a career spent writing millions of words at speed and to dealine.

Which experience possibly explains the deft way he handles the more constrained, less extravagant sixties Sexton Blake and contrives to make a real silk purse form a definite sow's ear.

I love the way that, in the absence of proper super villains, he populates his books with grotesques and oddities - the middle-class, middle-aged kitchen table abortionist who turns up early in Death in the Top Twenty for instance, or the recurring characters of the crafty, but destitute Duke and Duchess of Derwentwater.

I love the way he drops meta-fictional asides into the text bemoaning that very absence of proper bad guys (in each of his Blake books, he has Blake himself muse about the good old days when he tackled real villains instead of the tiresome insurance work which makes up the bulk of his 60s work) and explaining other jarring elements of the Blake Library (brilliantly the sole explanation for Tinker not being about 100, given he was born in the last century, is that he's very young looking for his age!). Particularly great is an aside form Blake about the fact that writers never get paid enough!

I love the characterisation of the regulars - Blake is essentially the same character as he was in the 1920s, with the same attitudes and morals, only now living in the Swinging Sixties, like an early precursor of Austin Powers or a contemporary of Adam Adamant. Tinker, now more generally referred to by his name, Edward Carter, is a real ladies-man, given the task of seducing anyone from pub barmaids to spurned girlfriends.. And Paula Dane is far more than the sort of stock female weakling you would expect in such a novel, proving herself to be a doughty fighter and a master of disguise, infiltrating the villain's lair more often than Tinker and frequently suffering quite extreme violence for her efforts.

I love the plots - Death in the Top Twenty, for instance, is about someone trying to kill a 60s pop star who uses a body double for every part of his life, including his sex life and living in his mansion, because he prefers to live with his mum!

Most of all I love the arch humour of lines like "Riparian rights are liable to enter the leasehold and no riverside dweller can be absolutely sure that by immemorial custom swan-upping does not take place on his front lawn every third Tuesday of September." Really, how unexpected is that in a hard-boiled crime thriller? And how brilliant?

I have to find more of McNeilly's books - I think he did some Danger Man novelisations for a start...
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Blogger TimeWarden said...

I'd love to see the Laurence Payne TV series again but sadly it's never going to happen.

8:04 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

They could at least release the single episode which remains in the archives!

10:41 am  

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