In 2018, Rebellion Publishing in the U.K. acquired the catalogue of Amalgamated Press, the original home of fictional investigator Sexton Blake, who—after 4,000 stories by some 200 authors, plus radio serials, movies, and TV series—had slipped into obscurity.
Now, Rebellion is resurrecting the detective, starting with five new books whose stories span more than 40 years. The tales in book one, Sexton Blake and the Great War (Apr.), were published in the first decades of the 20th century, and book five, Sexton Blake’s New Order (Dec.), includes three stories from 1960.
“We wanted to reintroduce the character across the various chronological periods he moved through,” says Michael Rowley, commissioning editor at Rebellion. “Each volume covers a significant aspect of his story and serves as an introduction to the character across his lifespan.” Novelist Mark Hodder (The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack), who maintains a Sexton Blake resource website, selected the stories for each collection.
Hodder says that Blake owes his existence to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which began appearing in the Strand magazine toward the end of the 19th century. Alfred Harmsworth, founder of Amalgamated Press, spotted a “gap in the market between the sophisticated Strand and the thrown-together penny dreadfuls,” Hodder notes. He enlisted a young journalist named Harry Blyth to create a sleuth for the mid-market audience, and in 1893, with the story “The Missing Millionaire” published in the magazine The Halfpenny Marvel, Blake took on his first case.
“Like the handful of other Blake stories he subsequently penned, it was, by modern standards, utterly dreadful,” Hodder says. But Harmsworth, it seems, was satisfied, and purchased the rights to the character.
Blake evolved over the years and took on more Holmes-like qualities in 1904, when author William Murray Graydon “audaciously” moved him into a Baker Street residence, Hodder says, and paired him with a bloodhound named Pedro. Another writer, W.J. Lomax, gave Blake an assistant named Tinker, and cemented a trio would last more than 70 years.
Blake’s “golden age” was between World War I and World War II, Hodder says. “He and Tinker became a prototype Batman and Robin, opposed by a rogues’ gallery of colorful and eccentric villains.” By the 1950s, Blake toughened up and became “more James Bond than Sherlock Holmes,” but in 1978, after nearly a century-long run, the character was phased out.
Blake’s departure from page, screen, and airwaves is “something of a mystery,” says Ben Smith, head of film, TV, and publishing at Rebellion. “There had been multiple films from the 1910s to the 1950s, two separate TV series a generation apart, multiple radio serials, comics, and more.” But when IPC—Amalgamated’s successor—got out of the fiction publishing business, “he quietly faded away.” Rebellion’s new program, Smith says, will bring “a coherent approach to showcasing why he was so important.”