Monday, April 28, 2014

Alias Blackshirt

The great success of E. W. Hornung’s Raffles stories which first started to appear in 1898  and the popularity of translations of Maurice Leblanc’s tales of Arsène Lupin at the end of the following decade established the gentleman thief as a lucrative fictional subject. In the 1920s another similar character made his literary debut. This character was Blackshirt, created by Bruce Graeme.

Bruce Graeme was the pen-name of Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1982), a prolific author of both mysteries and thrillers under a variety of pen-names. His first Blackshirt story was published in 1923 and a collection in book form, with the title Blackshirt, followed in 1925. It was to be the first of many Blackshirt books. While both Blackshirt and his creator are now almost entirely forgotten their success at the time was considerable, the first two books in the series eventually selling around a million copies each. Alias Blackshirt was the fourth book in the series.

At this point it should be explained that the hero’s sobriquet has nothing to do with the Italian fascists, although it may have been chosen by the author as a kind of topical joke. The name derives from the hero's habit of wearing all-black clothing and a black mask.

Blackshirt, whose real name was Richard Verrell, differed in several important ways from his gentleman thief predecessors. For one thing, he was no gentleman. He was an orphan, a slum child brought up in the midst of the criminal underworld. At an age when most boys are learning to ride a bicycle he was learning the fine art of burglary.

Blackshirt was not however destined to remain a criminal. That he becomes a reformed character is not a spoiler, but the reasons for his reformation and the way in which it occurs are major spoilers which I do not intend to reveal. Suffice to say that London’s most notorious burglar transforms himself into a successful and respectable writer. A writer of, needless to say, crime novels. Had this been the end of the story there would have been only one Blackshirt book. In fact Blackshirt cannot escape the world of real-life crime but rather than returning to his bad old habits he becomes an amateur crime-fighter.

In Alias Blackshirt his past catches up to him in a rather surprising way. Another series of daring burglaries baffles Scotland Yard. The crimes bear the unmistakable stamp of Blackshirt and in fact the thief is spotted during one robbery, wearing the outfit that had made him so notorious. This is more than embarrassing for Richard Verrell as he knows very well that he had nothing to do with this new series of robberies. It is obvious to him that someone is committing these crimes with the intention of making them appear to be his work. It might be obvious to him but it is not at all obvious to Scotland Yard. They are convinced that Blackshirt is back to his old tricks.

The most alarming thing of all is that the latest robbery took place at a time for which Richard Verrell can provide no alibi whatsoever. It seems that his criminal past is about to be exposed. There is only one solution. Richard Verrell must turn detective and track down the new Blackshirt.

There is a further difficulty. His namesake is blackmailing him into assisting him in this new series of burglaries.

The thriller genre was becoming immensely popular in the mid-1920s. The Bulldog Drummond books, which started to appear in 1919, were sensationally successful. Edgar Wallace’s thrillers were selling in enormous quantities. John Buchan’s Richard Hannay and Edward Leithen spy thrillers were hugely popular. The Blackshirt stories are rather different, and in some ways point the way forward to the hero-rogues of 1930s thrillers, such as Simon Templar and The Baron. Like them Blackshirt combines the glamour of the successful criminal with the virtuousness of a hero. And like Simon Templar (and like Raffles a quarter of a century earlier) his social position is ambiguous. Richard Verrell has the fame and the money to mingle with high society but he remains an outsider, always aware of his lowly origins and his criminal past. He is actually more shamed of his origins than of his earlier career as a burglar. Success could bring a measure of acceptance among the upper reaches of society, but this acceptance would always be partial. Richard Verrell is still aware of his outsider status.

One interesting feature of most of the British thrillers of the interwar years is that they really need to be read in sequence. It is particularly important in the case of the Blackshirt books to at least read the first book before attempting any of the later entries in the series. As is the case with Bulldog Drummond, The Baron and The Saint the first book gives crucial background information without which the characters cannot be properly understood.

The British thrillers of the 20s and 30s remained popular until the 1970s, after which they began to lapse into obscurity. This is a great pity since these books not only offer fine entertainment but also a glimpse into another world, a world far more complex and fascinatingly contradictory than is generally acknowledged. Alias Blackshirt is a fine example of the breed. Highly recommended, but do read the first book in the series before reading this one.

2 comments:

  1. Great review! I managed to find the first Blackshirt on eBay, a reissue from the 70s or some such time. His son also wrote some, I believe, but I can't find any of these. It's a shame they weren't reprinted. I don't know why the popularity dwindled, but I suspect it was because the writers died off.

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