Friday, March 10, 2023

Murderer At Large - W.A. Ballinger

MURDERER AT LARGE is a 1965 entry in the Sexton Blake series after it moved 
from digest-sized novels to mass-market paperbacks. That title is the name of a low-budget true crime TV show in England that focuses on unsolved homicides—cold cases, although I don’t think that term was used that early—in which the killer appears to have gotten away with it.

One of the cases that the show will cover in an upcoming episode is the Primrose Ballet Murder, which occurred three years earlier when a 15-year-old dancer was strangled. The show has two researchers, one a former cop and the other a journalist, and when one of them is murdered, probably because he got too close to the identity of the Primrose Ballet Killer, private detective Sexton Blake is drawn into the case. Not surprisingly, another killing occurs, so ultimately Blake has to solve three murders and pick out the killer from a very large cast of characters that includes writers, producers, casting directors, and aristocrats from the upper levels of society and finance.

Not only are there a lot of suspects to sort through, but many of the series regulars also appear, including Blake’s assistant Edward Carter (aka Tinker), his beautiful secretary Paula Dane, his likewise beautiful receptionist Marian Lang, his journalist friend Arthur “Splash” Kirby, and even his faithful dog Pedro.

The plot of MURDERER AT LARGE is a little on the thin side, which may explain the large number of characters involved. Even with so many people running around, the author still needs to fill some pages with humorous digressions such as this one early on:

The writers’ office was small, shabby, and tucked away on the most remote corridor of the top floor of ATN House [the production company that makes the series]. This was usual for no large entertainment organisation loves writers. When they can be replaced with electronic machines they will be replaced. [Shades of ChatGPT!]

Machines suffer from none of the disabilities of writers, such as unpunctuality, debts or intoxication. Machines do not pinch the bottom of the managing director’s secretary or borrow ten shillings from the doorkeeper. Machines do not, above all, regard their employers with anarchistic contempt between spells of obsequiousness when pay-checks are due to come round.

But until machines are made the organisations have to make do with writers, faults and all.

Whoever wrote that knows writers, that’s for sure! Sure sarcastic asides run all through the book, poking a lot of fun at the TV business. When Blake finally exposes the killer and the murderer tries to flee, the action becomes pure slapstick, and it’s pretty darned funny despite a rather grim ending. This whole book is a slightly unsettling blend of bleak and hilarious, but I really enjoyed it.

Which brings us to the question of the author’s identity. The book is bylined W.A. Ballinger, a pseudonym normally used by W. Howard Baker, the author/editor/packager who was in charge of the Sexton Blake series for many years. Baker often had uncredited collaborators doing first drafts for him, so his actual contribution could range from plot/light edits to plot and heavy revisions. In addition, other editors sometimes revised manuscripts. A friend of mine who’s familiar with the series and authors suggests that Wilfred McNeilly might have had something to do with this one, but that’s far from certain. I have a couple of Blake paperbacks credited to McNeilly and intend to read them soon to see if I can pick up any similarity in styles.

None of this really matters, of course, no matter how interesting I find it. What's important is whether or not a book is entertaining, and MURDERER AT LARGE certainly is. By the way, I apologize for the quality of the cover scan. I read the novel as a PDF file, and this is the only cover image I could find on-line.


Duane Spurlock said...

Somehow I've not ever read a Sexton Blake. Any suggestions for where a newbie should begin? (Looks like there are a variety of collections available these days in ebook format.)

James Reasoner said...

The series ran for so long and had so many different authors over the years it's hard to say. And I've read only a tiny fraction of them. But I've read in different eras from the early days, when Blake was more of a Sherlock Holmes type of character, to the Sixties paperbacks where he's a medium-boiled private eye, and I liked all of them! A bunch of the early novels are in public domain and can be found on-line, so I'd say you could start by trying a few of them.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Your question isn't an easy one to answer, Duane. Sexton Blake "moved with the times", beginning in 1893 and traversing most of the last century. The thousands of stories were written by hundreds of writers in many different styles. You would have to consider what periods interest you most, and what particular sub-genre of crime fiction — ranging from whodunits to spy thrillers, from war stories to humor and even a few rewritten Gold Medals — suits your taste. Take a look at Mark Hodder's extensive Blakiana website. Dip into the UNION JACK and SEXTON BLAKE public domain offerings at Comic Book Plus. . . Then you might have the beginnings of a useful answer! I see James has just given you a similar suggestion.