Fictional British private detective Sexton Blake had a career that spanned nine decades. He appeared in over 4000 stories and was translated into more than 20 languages. Blake featured in movies, radio and TV serials, and comic strips. Not a bad career for a sleuth who is often dismissed as “The poor man’s Sherlock Holmes”.
Upper-class private eye, Sexton Blake bounded into the world in 1893 in a short story entitled The Missing Millionaire. He’d tackle his final mystery in Sexton Blake and the Demon Gods, 85 years later. By that stage, a conservative estimate would put the dynamic sleuth’s age at around 108.
Blake—son of an Irish doctor and an English aristocrat—was created by author Harry Blyth, a Londoner who’d begun his career writing about food for the upmarket Tatler magazine. Blyth wrote six Blake stories for The Halfpenny Marvel, a story paper aimed at teenage boys.
The Halfpenny Marvel was owned by British media baron Arthur Harmsworth who also published The Daily Mail, the London Times, and dozens of other periodicals. Mindful of the need for renewable characters, Harmsworth bought the name and character of Sexton Blake off Blyth for the princely sum of £9 (the equivalent of around £1500 today).
Over the course of Blake’s life his cases would be written up by over 200 different authors—amongst them some surprising and unlikely names including Herbert Allingham (father of Queen of Crime Margery Allingham), Irish novelist Brian O’ Nolan (better known to the world as Flann O’Brien) and sci-fi and fantasy author Michael Moorcock who penned his first Blake story aged just nineteen and would go on to write the lyrics for songs by Blue Oyster Cult.
The first and arguably most influential of the authors to take over Blyth’s creation was prolific Pennsylvanian, William Murray Graydon. Born and raised in Harrisburg, Graydon wrote historical tales and moved his family to England in 1896—the year poor Harry Blyth died of typhoid fever aged just 46.
Sexton Blake: The Early Years
By now Blake was a weekly feature of the Harmsworth press title The Union Jack. Graydon began writing Blake mysteries in 1904 and over the next 26 years would pen 260 of them. Along the way, he’d move the detective into rooms in Baker Street (whether he ever bumped into Holmes and Watson is unrecorded, though he did once nearly apprehend EW Hornung’s gentleman thief, A.J Raffles). He’d also provide Blake with a ferocious and loyal companion in bloodhound, Pedro, and a comedy landlady in Mrs Bardell. Graydon developed the character of Blake’s assistant, Tinker, a cockney street urchin (much in the style of one of Conan Doyle’s Baker Street Irregulars) who he based on a local newsboy.
With Graydon at the helm, Blake battled master criminals with names like Basil Wicketshaw and Laban Creed and traveled to exotic locations—Turkey, Rome, Jamaica—giving the detective the feel of an Edwardian James Bond (there was no sex, however—in the best traditions of the Victorian British hero Blake had a very limited interest in women).
When William Murray Graydon stepped down from writing the Blake stories his post was taken up by his son Robert Murray Graydon. Robert would be responsible for introducing the association of evil masterminds—The Criminal Confederation—to the Blake universe.
With other writers such as Canadian George Hamilton Teed, Londoner Edwy Searles Brookes—a prodigious literary workhorse who is estimated to have had over 40 million words published during his lifetime, quite an effort in the days when manuscripts were still handwritten—and Yorkshireman John William Scott also writing Blake stories, the sleuth began to pop up in other Harmsworth titles such as Answers Weekly, The Boys’ Herald and—in longer tales—The Boys’ Friend Library.
Sexton Blake and the Great War
The detective was soon the star of a dozen silent movie serials, while his adventures gripped listeners to BBC radio.
After World War One, a new generation of writers came on board. They included John Creasey, (creator of Gideon of Scotland Yard and author of over 600 novels written under 22 pseudonyms) and Jack Trevor Storey—best remembered today for the novel The Trouble with Harry, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1955.
By now Blake had moved to plush offices in London’s ritzy Berkeley Square, acquired a glamourous secretary, Paula Dane, a bullet-proof Rolls Royce named The Grey Panther, and assembled a fully equipped crime laboratory after the style of Bruce Wayne.
He needed it too, for Blake was menaced by a battalion of evil-doers. Amongst them—Zenith the Albino, the superhumanly strong Waldo the Wonderman, Polish flying ace turned ruthless gangster Count Carloc and the Chinese nobleman Prince Wu Ling who—like Max Rohmer’s Fu Manchu—was hell-bent on world domination.
Sexton Blake: The Carlac Files
Luckily, Blake was not alone. Aside from Pedro the dog and the apparently ageless teenager, Tinker, he could also rely on the assistance of James “Granite” Grant of the Secret Service, an expert safecracker, The Bat, beautiful French detective Yvonne Cartier and Lobangu, Chief of the Zulus. It was like a twee-suited version of The Avengers.
In the aftermath of World War Two, Blake became more of an action hero thanks to a new breed of writers—such as Moorcock—who were more influenced by U.S. pulp fiction than the Victorian adventure yarns of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Henry Rider Haggard.
The innovations helped Blake stay on top of his game. He moved into comic strips and in the late 1960s starred in his own ITV series, which ran for fifty episodes.
Though his popularity in print was fading, Blake wasn’t yet done. In 1978 the BBC commissioned a series, Sexton Blake and the Demon God with a screenplay by Simon Raven (who’d worked on the Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).
The TV series was turned into a comic strip in the British comic Valiant and novelized by John Garforth (who’d also done similar work on The Avengers and popular British TV detective Paul Temple). It was Blake’s last original appearance—discounting fan fiction—though anthologies of his mysteries have been appearing ever since, the most recent Sexton Blake Spy Stories in 2023.
Sexton Blake: Spy Stories
During his career, the man billed as “the daring detective” had—amongst many other things—been shot, coshed, stabbed, and locked in a cellar filled with poisonous snakes. If anyone deserved a quiet retirement, it was Sexton Blake.