Sexton Blake Homepage
The Other Baker Street Detective
The following article is based on the script of episode 3 of THE RADIO DETECTIVES, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1998. The programme was written and presented by Professor Jeffrey Richards who has given his kind permission for his script to be adapted for this website.

The history of crime detection has produced no more famous name than that of Sexton Blake. In the December 1893 issue of THE STRAND magazine, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls. That very same month the HALFPENNY MARVEL published a story called THE MISSING MILLIONAIRE written by a jobbing writer, Harry Blyth, under the pen-name Hal Meredeth. The story introduced a character that came to be disparaged as ‘the office-boy’s Sherlock Holmes’ or ‘the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes’. But for several generations of the mass reading public, Sexton Blake was the Baker Street detective; a more significant figure in the popular imagination even than Holmes. The name was a master stroke. ‘Sexton Blake’… with its overtones of graveyards, mystery and death. Harry Blyth was paid nine guineas as a fee for the first story and the copyright in the character. But after writing seven stories, none of them actually very good, he died of typhoid in 1898. However, Blake’s fictional career was to last more or less continuously from 1893 to 1978, running to over 4,000 stories by some 200 different authors.

As Blake took over the mantle of Holmes, he also took over some of his attributes. Certainly they were similar in physical appearance; they both had rooms in Baker Street, devoted housekeepers and faithful assistants. But there were significant differences. Where Conan Doyle’s stories were detective puzzles, celebrations of the fine art of deductive reasoning, the Blake stories were melodramatic thrillers… vivid, action-packed and fast-moving. Blake was constantly globe-trotting and is almost certainly the most well travelled of the fictional detectives, whereas Holmes never strays outside Western Europe in the published stories. Where Holmes was something of a misogynist, Blake had discreetly hinted at (but chaste) romances. Holmes was a late-Victorian, Blake a modern man of the streamlined inter-war years; his regular means of conveyance a bullet-proof Rolls Royce as opposed to Sherlock’s horse-drawn hansom cab. Holmes was a product of the middle class world of THE STRAND magazine, which cost sixpence an issue; Blake was a product of the mass-circulation story papers for working class readers, epitomised by the HALFPENNY MARVEL, the paper launched by Alfred J. Harmsworth in 1893, which cost a ha’penny and in which Blake made his literary debut. But this was the mere starting point for the Blake legend. Its mythic significance was appreciated by no lesser person than Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey:

'This is the Holmes tradition adapted for the reading of the Board School boy and crossed with the Buffalo Bill adventure type. Books are written by a syndicate of authors each one of whom uses a set of characters of his own invention, grouped about a central and traditional group consisting of Sexton Blake and his boy assistant Tinker, their comic landlady Mrs Bardell, and their bulldog Pedro [sic. Pedro is a bloodhound]. As might be expected, the quality of the writing and the detective methods employed vary considerably from one author to another. The best specimens display extreme ingenuity and an immense vigour and fertility in plot and incident; nevertheless, the central types are pretty consistently preserved throughout the series. Blake and Tinker are less intuitive than Holmes; they are more careless and reckless in their methods; more given to displays of personal heroism and pugilism; more simple and human in their emotions. The really interesting point about them is that they represent the nearest modern approach to a national folklore, conceived as the center for a cycle of loosely connected romances in the Arthurian manner. Their significance in popular literature and education would richly repay scientific investigation.'

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© Mark Hodder