Thursday, November 5, 2009



In the early 1970s, two mystery writers separately discovered a previously spotted an unserviced mystery fiction time period, which they then exploited somewhat successfully for a decade or so.

At the time the vogue in detective fiction was resolutely High Victorian (post the Great Exhibition), Ted Willis's 1960s television creation Sergeant Cork having done much to foster a fascination for a period at once so glitteringly opulent and breathtakingly squalid. Peter Lovesey performed a similar service for readers. His early Sergeant Crabb novels were mystery best-sellers from Wobble to Death (1970) onwards.

While other fictioneers jumped on the Victorian-police bandwagon, Richard Falkirk (pseudonym for journalist and spy novelist Derek Lambert) and Jeremy Sturrock, quite unknown to each other, eschewed slavish imitation, remembering that before the Peelers portrayed by Sergeants Cork and Crabb were the Bow Street Runners, known as thieftakers.

Sturrock (the alias as well as chief character of art director Ben Healey) evoked the 1800s through to Waterloo in fine rumbustious style, his novels rich in thieves' cant, memorable oaths, and comic violence.

Falkirk's depiction of the same period was altogether quieter, and darker – although the livelier, not to mention gamier, aspects of the time were not ignored.

Of the two series, however, it is Falkirk’s creation, thieftaker Edmund Blackstone, who still stays with me. Partly, I think this was because of the stylized cover art on the novels, but mostly because I found Falkirk’s storytelling to be more accessible.

Ultimately, there were eight Sturrock novels published over nearly two decades (1972-87). The last, The Thistlewood Plot, was only issued in America, where the books sold extremely well under (confusingly) the pseudonym J.G. Jeffreys.

Richard Falkirk wrote only six Blackstone books between 1972 and 1977, but he was also writing more mainstream espionage novels under his real name, Derek Lambert.

The Falkirk novels took a deal of research, usually, but not always, in the London Library. In any case research held no terrors for Lambert since, for nearly two decades, he had also been a top-line tabloid journalist and foreign correspondent.

The Blackstone books were in many ways a rest from the hectic pace of the 20th century. Bow Street Runner cum thieftaker Edmund Blackstone was a satisfyingly three-dimensional character moving through a time period rendered enticingly interesting in its contrast of riches and squalor.

Blackstone foiled the kidnapping of the Princess Victoria in the debut title, Blackstone, solved a robbery at the Bank of England in Blackstone Underground, and even squared up to the "little Corsican" himself in Blackstone and the Scourge of Europe.

In Blackstone’s Fancy, my favorite novel in the series, Blackstone is himself forced to take up the bare-knuckled pugilistic arts. It was my fascination for this novel, in particular, along with my own English police roots, which made me title one of my first fanzines (way, way, back in the day) The Thieftaker Journals.


Blackstone (1972)
Blackstone's Fancy (1973)
Beau Blackstone (1974)
Blackstone and the Scourge of Europe (1974)
Blackstone Underground (1976)
Blackstone on Broadway (1977)


pattinase (abbott) said...

Lovely review. I just barely remember these books.

Tom K. Mason said...

Thanks for this! I read the first two years ago (my dad was a big fan) and I have two others that I think I should get to now. I remember liking them a lot and it's why I picked up Bruce Alexander's Sir John Fielding books when they started coming out.