On December 20, 1893, The Half-Penny Marvel published "The Missing Millionaire" by "Hal Meredeth," a penname of Harry Blythe, which marked the first appearance of the most prolific Sherlock Holmes imitators in all of popular fiction, Sexton Blake, whose bibliography comprises of an astonishing 4,000 stories – written by over 200 different writers. A prolific run of eight decades that ended up encompassing short stories, novels, stage plays, comic books, silent movies, talkies, radio serials and even a TV-series in the 1960s.
So the sheer size and volume of the Sexton Blake Library has earned the series its own separate wing in the crime-genre, but, as everyone knows, quantity is rarely a substitute for quality. And this series is no exception.
Sexton Blake is synonymous with tawdry, formulaic thrillers with run-of-the-mill action scenes, pulpy gangsters and super-human villains (i.e. Waldo the Wonderman). That may be why I was never compelled to explore this series. A chronic lack of interest that persisted even when I learned that one of the greatest authorities on the impossible crime story, Derek Smith, had tried his hands at one that faced Blake with "a sealed room murder," which is usually more than enough to get my full attention – except that this time even that didn't work. A Sexton Blake novel simply did not appeal to me. No matter who wrote it.
That is, until that infernal nuisance, "JJ," posted a review on his blog claiming Smith's wrote "a legitimate excellent" Blake story filled "lovely clues." Showing what could have been had the writers not turned Blake in bargain basement cross between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.
So I decided to get myself a copy of Model for Murder (1952), which went unpublished during Smith's lifetime, but was finally printed in The Derek Smith Omnibus (2014) along with Whistle Up the Devil (1954), Come to Paddington Fair (1997) and a short story – titled "The Imperfect Crime." Admittedly, the story was better than I expected even after the positive review from JJ. Most notably the opening chapters and a conclusion that resembles a contortion act!
John Pugmire's Locked Room International published The Derek Smith Omnibus and speculated Model for Murder was probably "too cerebral for the audience," which would explain why it collected dust for sixty years. Anyway...
Model for Murder, or Model Murder, begins when an artist's model, Linda Martin, hurries to Baker Street on behalf of her employer, Leo Garvary, a once well-known sculptor who has been receiving anonymous letters of a threatening nature. That morning, Garvary received another threatening letter, but this he confided in Martin that he finally guessed who sent him and asked her to fetch Blake – who happens to be abroad on a case of national importance. So the task falls on the shoulders of his assistant, Tinker, whose role in this story genuinely surprised me.
Tinker is definitely not your regular Dr. Watson or Capt. Hastings, more of an Archie Goodwin-type of character, who actually solves the locked room problem before Blake officially enters the picture. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
When Tinker and Martin arrive at the studio, they see the eccentric Garvary standing by the door of his soundproof studio. He looks at them, enters the studio, slams and locks the door behind him and that's the last time they see him alive, because when a spare key from the desk clerk opens the door they find an empty studio. All of the windows are "securely latched" from the inside. A transom was secured by a triple notched bar and a second door was locked and bolted on the studio side. After a brief search, they find Garvary's body in one of the cupboards lining the left and right hand wall, but not an atom of proof someone had been present in the room to fire the gun.
Firstly, the locked room trick is not as ingenious as the one from Whistle Up the Devil and basically reuses an age-old technique to leave behind a locked crime-scene. So you should not go into the book expecting a knock-out classic like his second impossible crime novel, but admittedly, Smith used this technique with the expertise of locked room expert. Smith mentioned two potential explanations, trick-windows that slide into the wall and a hollow statue, which gave me an idea for an alternative explanation.
When the possibility of a hollow statue was mentioned, my mind immediately conjured up the image of a Russian nesting doll. You see, there were three cupboards on each side of the room.
Just imagine the studio used to have two, large storage closets, but these closets were converted into six, separate cupboards and this would open the possibility that the walls separating the middle cupboard from the first and third cupboard is very thin, no more than wooden panels, which perhaps consists of two halves that can slide into one another – to make more room when needed. So the murderer could have been hidden in the second cupboard and, when this person heard Tinker close the door of the first cupboard, crawled into it through the sliding wall panel. Like a human shell game. And simply slip out of the room when everyone's attention was somewhere else (like inspecting the inner room).
However, the solution to the locked room murder turned out to be very different. Surprisingly, Tinker not only worked out the locked room trick, but demonstrated the trick to a baffled police constable, who demanded answers, which he refused to do until he had spoken to his employer – only to get shot and seriously wounded a short time later. A shooting briefly presented as a (semi) impossibility, but this aspect is quickly dispelled by a discovery in the hearth.
In any case, this murderous attempt effectively removed Tinker from the stage and left Blake with the daunting task to work out an explanation based on the breadcrumbs of information his assistant left behind. However, the pure detective elements from the opening chapters began to dilute in the middle section.
The reader knows by this point who shot Tinker and that this person has a connection with a shadowy underworld figure, but, more importantly, the gunman is determined to get his hands on a little black book filled with information of his criminal enterprise. So the seedy thriller elements really kick in here and this person even kidnaps and physically abuses Martin. This portion of the plot is the part that adheres to the formula of the series.
Luckily, Smith came back strong in the final stages of the story by serving a triple-layered solution to the reader. A solution that volleyed the guilt of the murder between two characters. This is likely the part that was too cerebral for its intended audience, because the conclusion is everything you'd expect from a legitimate expert on the traditional detective story. Model for Murder should have been a model for this series during its twilight years. It would be funny if this series had gone against the trend
In summation, Model for Murder is an interesting experiment of a traditional-minded mystery writer attempting to worm a puzzle-plot into the formula of a cheap, action-oriented series of pulp-thrillers and defied expectations by succeeding – better than he had any right to. I probably will never read another Sexton Blake story in my life, but glad I took a change on this one. I really like Smith and this world is a poorer place for the fact that he only wrote three (locked room) novels.
Finally, I referred to JJ's review earlier and in it he mentioned a confusing fact regarding the locked door of the studio. JJ said that the door was described as not having a keyhole, but was unlocked with a key a few pages later. I think JJ misunderstood this. The door didn't have an old-fashioned keyhole that you can look through, which were still common (indoors) in the fifties, but there was a modern lock on the door. A yale lock. So Smith didn't make a sloppy mistake there.