Thursday, 14 January 2010

Suppressed Desires of a Bank Manager: The Sexton Blake Library, Third Series, No. 216, May 1950, "The Evil Spell" by Walter Tyrer

Greetings, junk-fans. It's been far too long since I last invited you to join me in an unholy decaying-newsprint tryst amidst the fusty portals of the House of Cobwebs. More importantly, I have to get rid of that picture of Morecambe and Wise from the top of the page - they look so sad and unwell they're starting to make me feel a bit poorly myself.

So, let's replace that faded photo with a splendid Eric Parker cover for The Sexton Blake Library dating from 1950. I love it. What brilliant composition, full of atmosphere and colour, and so evocative - really summing up that only-just-post-war world. What a fine artist Parker was. Check out the succinctly-captured look of pompous outrage on the hypnotist's victim (not to mention the watch chain tightly stretched across his waistcoat), the splendidly shocked clown, and the saucy showgirl in her scanty costume.

Sexton Blake isn't on the cover. He was perhaps the most famous of all the fictional brainy private detectives to follow in Sherlock Holmes' footsteps, and he appeared in umpteen squillion pulpy stories between the 1890s and the 1970s, notably published in the story paper Union Jack and, for decades, in the pocket-size The Sexton Blake Library. Hundreds of authors churned out stories of Mr Blake's exploits, as he unceasingly cracked crimes ably assisted by his young assistant, Tinker. He was big in his day, which was an incredibly long one, spinning-off into the films and on to the radio and the telly. He still has a devoted following. My old man - who crops up rather frequently on this blog - proudly displays hundreds of Sexton Blake libraries on the shelves of his 'man cave'.

The Evil Spell is about a bank manager who, under the influence of an evil hypnotist, does naughty things, like gambling with investors' money (bankers haven't changed much, have they?), and hanging out with showgirls. It was written by a chap called Walter Tyrer.

Like me, Tyrer doesn't seem to care that much about the one-dimensional characters of Blake and Tinker - for him they are merely the central ciphers that, as the hack writing this, he had to hang the tale upon. The two 'tecs don't feature very prominently in the story. Nor does Mr Tyrer seem to be much interested in plot, nor the potential for sensation in the 'hypnotism' premise. Indeed, it seems to me that, like so many frustrated writers of pulp, he was more interested in his own, more serious novelistic goals. One of which, for Tyrer, seems to be fashioning a character study of a supposedly respectable, puffed-up lower middle class chap (the bank manager you can see on the cover) tempted into debauchery, while gleefully highlighting how temptation begins the speedy slide from respectability to shame.

He creates a brilliant thumbnail sketch of the tormented bank manager, as he slides towards sin:

"Mr. Arthur Grimes had spent the early part of the evening listening to a symphony concert on the wireless because he thought that was a dignified and respectable thing to do, although good music was inclined to induce drowsiness in him. He did not listen to the Light Programme because he thought that was unrefined and socially beneath him. Humour puzzled him, also, although he occasionally unbent enough to make a joke. The Third Programme was, of course, suitable only for cranks and eccentrics, and not for bank managers.

...He switched the wireless off, because it was a regrettable fact that good music bored him. Now was the hour which, he informed those people who cared to listen to him or were compelled to, he usually spent with a good book, something to improve his mind.

A few minutes later he was busy with a form book and several newspapers, trying to reduce the running of certain horses to a mathematical formula. "

There's a lot of dry wit in Tyrer's prose. As Grimes - hypnotised - gets involved with an ageing showgirl - "a blonde with somewhat chemical characteristics" - Tyrer fleshes out her character, too, with cynical, humorous economy:

"Miss Lottie Short was creditably punctual the following morning. Blake and Tinker had arranged to meet her in the private bar at the Station Hotel, where they were staying, and promptly at opening time Miss Short, a bright and colourful figure, came through the swing doors like a newly painted liner with flags flying leaving the slip-way on which it had been built.

"Here I am!" she said gaily. "Up with the lark for once! I haven't even stopped to have any breakfast."

"Maybe we can arrange something," said Blake.

He looked around for the barman with the idea of ordering a sandwich, but he discovered that Miss Short's breakfast appetite was somewhat unconventional, and she elected to have a double whisky with ginger ale. It was, she explained, economical, because with the double quantity of whisky you didn't have to leave any of the ginger ale."

Later, Blake confronts Grimes with Lottie:

"Lottie's delight was childlike and unrestrained.

"Dear old Friar Tuck!" she exclaimed. "Fancy finding you here! Aren't you glad to see your little Maid Marian. When are you going to chase me round Sherwood Forest, like you threatened?"

Mr Grimes' consternation was only too apparent. His fountain-pen fell from his hand, while his eyebrows fled upwards in apparent search of his non-existent hair.

"You have the advantage of me, madam!" he said frostily."

Writing in a somewhat stodgy, but cosily effective style, pleasingly reminiscent of a minor Victorian novelist, here Tyrer concocts two fine studies of flawed, jaded, mediocre, unexceptional people, hiding them within the commercial confines of a feebly-plotted sevenpenny detective story. Who was Tyrer? Was he a jaded bank clerk, tempted by gin and gee-gees, wishing he had the time and luxury to write "proper" novels?

This is only the second Blake story I've read. It's not much of a detective story, but if you're unhealthily obsessed with the past and want a forgotten tale of closely-observed, small-time, down-at-heel characters trapped within a pulp-fiction British social drama, look no further. Just nip out with your 7d and pick up a copy. It may still be on the bookstalls.

Blake himself, impervious to all temptation, of course, sums up the moral of this tale:

"We have had a glimpse of the suppressed desires of a bank manager. It's dangerous, Tinker, to suppress desires too violently. Like sitting on the safety valve of a boiler."

How true, Mr Blake. But we can't all be as upstanding as you...

You will (temporarily) find this pocket library in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.