Friday, December 13, 2013

Sexton Blake: The Affair of the Black Carol

  "A seasonable story of detective adventure, animated throughout by the gladsome spirit of Christmastide."

   As some of you may recall from last Christmas, I picked up a collection of Sexton Blake Christmas stories. I read and reviewed one novella last December, and I'm back this year with another. This one originally appeared in the Dec. 10th issue of Union jack Weekly for 1927. It's exactly what the blurb above promises. A detective story with plenty of Christmas spirit.
   At the beginning of Black Carol, Sexton Blake and his young assistant Tinker are hanging around Blake's rooms in Baker Street, (Just a few houses down from 221B, one suspects) discussing plans for Christmas eve, when they receive a visit from an old friend, the American cowboy turned detective, Ruff Hanson. A giant of a man, Ruff sports a stetson and a pair of six guns as all good American detectives should. Seems that Ruff has been employed by a ex-pat Brit who's made a fortune in the movies in the US. The man wants Ruff to bodyguard his young son, a fragile, lame boy who's doting father has brought him to the homeland for a real old fashioned British Christmas.
   The movie magnate has rented an estate in the country where he plans to host a Dickens style Christmas party for the local children, including the orphans under the care of the village Vicar. And as it turns out, the young boy hero worships the great Detective Sexton Blake and wants him to attend the party. Blake agrees and he and Tinker, along with reporter friend Splash Page, and the stolid Scotland Yard man Inspector Coutts, head down by old fashioned carriage.
   This is where author Gywn Evans, who was known for his Christmas Blake tales, really gets a chance to pour on the Christmas trappings. Everyone is supposed to wear Dickensian garb to the party, so Blake and the gang are decked out in 1860s fashion, each of them portraying a different character from the works of Charles Dickens. As our heroes ride through the snowy evening in their carriage, they stop at rustic Inns for fresh horses and sample the fare. Yule logs pop and crackle in glowing hearths and the lads even sing a few carols as they go. It's all very innocent and nifty and gave me a nice Christmas buzz.
   At the estate there's more of the same as the father has spared no expense for the party. As it turns out, Sexton Blake has brought a big bag of toys for the kiddies too. Evans gets such a happy, warm Christmas glow going that when we are suddenly reminded that Sexton Blake lives in a world of criminals, it hits especially hard,
   See, Ruff Hanson (great name that) had been hired as a bodyguard for the lame boy because some of his father's rivals, who had connections to the underworld in America, were making threats. Little do our heroes know that the bad guys have hired local talent in London and just as the party winds down, Blake and company find that the lame boy has been kidnapped from the estate.
   The second half of the story is a grim and desperate race to save the lad before the kidnappers decide to cut their losses and kill the kid. They show they mean business by sending a phonograph record (the titular black carol) of the kid being tortured. Beside himself with fury, Blake swears that he will bring the low lifes to justice if it costs him everything and if there's anything worse than getting on Sexton Blake's bad side, it's doing so while he has the Two Gun Bob of detectives to back his play. Justice will be served, you can bet.
   This is just a great, unapologetic pulp yarn full of colorful characters and thrills and chills. Plus all the trimmings of an old fashioned British Christmas, where the spirit of Dickens is never far away. I enjoyed it tremendously. I can see why Sexton Blake was such a popular figure back in the day. He's kind of like The Doctor, in that you know as long as he's there, there's always hope. Blake never gives up.

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