Home/ Opinion / Sexton Blake: The poor man’s Sherlock

The name Sexton Blake may ring a bell among crime fiction aficionados—gumshoe extraordinaire of 1900s pulp, “a poor man’s Sherlock" with a streetwise, Cockney lad sidekick named Tinker. Sexton Blake debuted six years after the first Sherlock Holmes story hit the stands and was an obvious rival to the extent that he had his detective office on Baker Street, virtually next door to the man in the deerstalker cap. The stories became popular, were even translated into Arabic and Hindi, but are largely forgotten today except by pulp collectors.

One reason may be that whereas Sherlock Holmes was essentially the product of a single well-known writer, Sexton Blake was a series character hacked out by multiple writers (over the decades some 200 were employed) producing up to four novels a month plus innumerable magazine stories, comic strips, TV and radio episodes, until the franchise ran out of steam some 40 years ago.

But the super sleuth is back now in The Tower of Silence, a recently rediscovered, long-lost adventure novel by an unknown Indian author. Pitted against Sexton Blake is Parsi vigilante Beram (who has no last name in the story). A British pilot has flown over the Tower of Silence in Pune and snapped photographs, the negatives of which the novel’s Parsi hero is determined to find and destroy. In the process Beram ends up kidnapping everyone involved in the scandal, to teach the Westerners not to mess with Eastern gods.

The Tower of Silence: By P.J. Chevalier ‘Chaiwala’. Edited and with an introduction by Gyan Prakash, HarperCollins, 240 pages, Rs299
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The Tower of Silence: By P.J. Chevalier ‘Chaiwala’. Edited and with an introduction by Gyan Prakash, HarperCollins, 240 pages, Rs299

But the fast-paced style enables one to ignore improbabilities and inconsistencies and keeps one glued—I found myself enjoying this tremendously as a farcical pastiche of early 1900s’ Western pulp and matinee yarns, giving the reader an Indian writer’s viewpoint on such fare, which takes hilarious forms in scenes like the one where the famous Sexton Blake is rolled up in an Indian carpet, and another time when he’s almost sacrificed by a cannibalistic slaver in the Eastern jungles.

To some extent, then, The Tower of Silence is an important historical document affording a glimpse into the imagination of a 20-something Bombay boy in the 1920s. The plot takes off from actual events, we learn in the erudite foreword by historian Gyan Prakash, the discoverer of the novel. Before it came to be written, the London illustrated weekly The Graphic had printed a large aerial photograph of the insides of a Tower of Silence to satisfy the West’s morbid curiosity about Eastern religious practices. This sacrilege outraged Parsis who protested to the colonial authorities, who in turn got the magazine to destroy the photograph and apologize for hurting religious sentiments. The author took this as his cue for writing a racy thriller in which the intellectual superman Beram goes West to punish those complicit in the nefarious business.

Reading about how this novel came to be launched now, nine decades after it was written, is as thrilling as reading the thriller itself. One day, 10 years ago, bored with all the colonial reports he was poring over at the British Library, Gyan Prakash chanced upon an unusual title: a Parsi detective novel self-published in a limited 100-copy edition in Bombay in 1928. The author-cum-publisher P.J. Chevalier turned out to be Phiroshaw Jamsetjee Chaiwala, a bachelor in philosophy from Wilson College who wrote the novel shortly after graduating and promptly posted a copy to the British Library.

The historian was totally engrossed until he came to page 169 and found the rest missing. He had no other option but to fly to Mumbai, and trawl through lending libraries and Parsi cultural institutions to find the lost pages.

What made it even more difficult was that very little is known about Chaiwala’s literary career except that he was involved with amateur dramatics, wrote a comic play in Gujarati staged at Excelsior Theatre, a volume of pompous poetry, and this unique thriller, before he went off the radar—perhaps migrating abroad in the 1930s.

Eventually, one helpful library peon found another copy which had the missing pages. And so, at last, The Tower of Silence found a proper publisher in HarperCollins—and is now available for all of us to enjoy.

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.

Also Read | Zac’s previous Lounge columns

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Updated: 29 Jun 2013, 12:31 AM IST
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