Zenith Lives! – JD Burton

An interesting collection. My knowledge of Sexton Blake mysteries is severely limited – my foreknowledge of the character of Zenith the Albino was utterly non-existent. But luckily, familiarity with the character is not a requirement for enjoyment of this collection of stories featuring the master criminal. As I imagine would be the case for the original tales which introduced the character, the authors do not assume intimate knowledge of prior appearances but treat each story as though it were your first introduction to Zenith.

For the most part, the authors of this collection take different approaches to the brief, which allows for a nice variety of storytelling. The only requirement – besides featuring the titular character – appears to have been a need to exclude the copyrighted character of detective Sexton Blake. Something that each of the writers found a different way of approaching…

With no further ado, then, onto the stories themselves!

“The Blood of Our Land” by Mark Hodder

Hodder is the only one of these authors whose prior work I am utterly unfamiliar with. From other comments on this site, I am led to believe he is (at least among other things) a writer of steampunk literature. While I have never before sampled his work, on the evidence of this story I believe I shall do so in the future.

This, the first story in the collection, is the only one that does what I expected from the book as a whole. It places us firmly in Zenith’s universe, in the world of the crime lord. Zenith is the protagonist – the hero, even – and we are shown the world as he lives it. This is no story about a criminal hiding from, fighting, or otherwise engaging with the strictures of the lawmen. It is a tale of the world of crime, and a very fun one at that.

With one exception, these Zenith stories have been written to feel very much of their time. The Sexton Blake tales spanned decades, but the early 20th century period is the most well-known era of this fiction world, and these stories mostly aim to recreate that feel.

I’m a sucker for pulp fiction, and by and large these really fit into that description. Here we see Zenith caught in a complex affair with his own interests at the heart. Schemes upon schemes interact to create a page-turning story of criminal action.

A wonderful way to introduce the world of Zenith the Albino, from his own perspective, in his own arena, this story rattles along and really satisfies.

“All the Many Rooms” by Paul Magrs

And here’s where “reviewing” gets tricky. At least for me.

I love Paul Magrs’ stuff. Most of the time. There are very few authors whose work I love unconditionally; even my favorite author of all time (Vladimir Nabokov) has some very dull stories (especially some of his earlier Russian novels). Similarly, I find works like “The Stones of Venice”, and “Sick Building” uncompelling.

Most of the time, though, Magrs’ writing is very bold and distinctive, with lots of crazy ideas. This is no different – but I find I am unable to give a proper account of my feelings toward this story. Because I don’t yet know exactly what they are.

This is by far the shortest of the tales herein, and also the only one that doesn’t approach the source material on its own terms. This is no criticism, but the change in style took me by surprise and caused me to take a moment to reorient myself.

At first, the nonsensical prose made me do a double-take. Surely Stuart Douglas wouldn’t overlook these terrible printing errors? What on earth is going on? A few pages in, and I (ever the quick-thinker! ) began to cotton on. Interesting.

The content is jarring to me. Not merely the adult content, but the fantastical content. It is so out of line with the other writers’ purist approach to the material that it can’t help but shake me somewhat. Again, this is no bad thing, but is so out of left field that it can be difficult for a low-brain like myself to process immediately. You see, not only does this story barely feature Zenith the Albino (if at all – his presence is debatable) but its jumbled text seems to feature a house party where universes have been crossed by pinking shears (see “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” which I, er, haven’t yet…) and (unless I’m misunderstanding the story, which is rather likely actually) fiction and reality combine, and reality itself unwinds.

But that’s trying to take a linear approach to the subject matter, which is unfair to it. The experiential side is what matters, and this reads like time and nature are out of whack. Sentences bleed into one another, and loop back, and a pattern begins to emerge which you can’t quite see. In the end, you are left with what I hope is the intended, somewhat exhausting, effect of witnessing time bend and trying to piece it back together.

Whether it withstands a logical analysis I can’t say without a reread. But certainly the subjective experience of the story works well, and is something I have never witnessed before.

As to whether I like it… I honestly can’t say yet. But I’d say in many ways that’s more of a recommendation than almost anything else I could say!

“Curar√©” by Michael Moorcock

And we swiftly move from the shortest, to by far the longest of these tales.

A couple comments upfront. The first is a joke I made elsewhere, but which bears repeating:

Michael Moorcock writing for an aristocratic and morally dubious albino character? I never thought I’d see the day…

Secondly, Moorcock is the only one of the authors to have seemingly missed the point of the endeavor. That is to say, rather than approach this as a chance to write for the character of Zenith the Albino, Moorcock has chosen to write a Sexton Blake story and just change the names of the leads to avoid copyright infringement.

This isn’t to say that it’s not any good. Quite the opposite, in fact, as this story may be my favorite of the lot. But I’m not certain it was quite what was intended for this Obverse Quarterly product.

That aside, it’s a wonderfully appropriate Sexton Blake Seaton Begg story about a voodoo cult crime syndicate, with other crime lords like Zenith drawn in to its affairs. It perfectly apes the writing of the period, and manages a purely pulpy and exciting detective adventure story which I adored.

One thing which I like about Moorcock (and I have been an occasional reader of his, more a sampler of his works than a devourer) is that he can write complex, deep and subtle stories, or pure unlayered adventure tales like this (and his most famous series). As I said here and in my ‘Wildthyme in Purple’ “review”, I adore pulp fiction and this is pure and lovely pulp.

So get lost in the adventures of the Baker Street detective (no, not that one) (or that one, do you want Obverse to get sued?) as he unravels a mystery involving walking corpses, trips across the globe, and some of his most capable adversaries. The length of this tale allows Moorcock to really get stuck in and create an authentic-seeming work that really entertains.

“The Albino’s Revenge” by George Mann

As I’ve said before, Mann is a very reliable hand on the tiller. I have yet to be blown away by any of his stuff, but yet have I to be disappointed either. And he’s perfect for this kind of story.

In some ways, it’s unfortunate that this and the Stuart Douglas story are placed back-to-back because both deal with a similar central element – the forging of a new adversarial unit. They’re actually quite different tales, however, which is why they may have benefitted from some physical separation in the book which might alleviate any concern of over-similarity.

Anyway, “Revenge” is a story about a police detective named Rutherford placed on a case of blackmail, with the mysterious and possibly mythical Zenith the Albino behind it. Rutherford will follow a trail of interviews to lead him to the evidence he hopes to procure that will lead him to that elusive mastermind behind the crime.

Much of this story is told by a series of meetings. Rutherford goes from one person to the next, following the trail to his intended destination. We meet a series of characters through this, each quite different, which really propels the story along wonderfully. Among the interviewees are Professor Angelchrist from “Paradox Lost” (the only character not to be physically described, as though Mann assumes we will all have read his Doctor Who book and recall the details of the character) and an unnamed detective. (Yes, you know who it’s supposed to be – but Mann just avoids the name, which can be occasionally awkward, rather than go the pseudonymous route taken up by Moorcock.)

It’s very fun, and rattles along, and I enjoyed it. By the end, it feels like the story is just beginning.

“Zenith’s End!” by Stuart Douglas

In a book filled with ‘name’ authors, it might surprise some to find that most accomplished (and even moving) of the pieces is this one. Although it still feels accurate to the character, this story moves time along to the 1970s and the text appropriately feels less adventuresome and more, well, sad.

The world has moved on, and left Zenith behind, and he begins to realize that there is no place left for him any more. Time for one last crime – but one motivated purely by personal sentiment. One final theft to allow his name to perhaps be remembered.

The 70s setting is highly appropriate, as the decade when cynicism really began to take hold. Modern society seemed less full of promise than it did in the prior decades, instead seeming to herald the ruination of humanity. Zenith’s personal feeling of loss echoes society’s similar realizations, as he comes to believe that the future holds nothing for him and his death is the only thing left for him.

As mentioned in the last section, this story shares some elements with Mann’s. But where that was a slow discovery by the detective that he has been drawn into a web from which he cannot extricate himself, this story examines Zenith’s slow discovery that perhaps that web still exists for him and could be his salvation.

Although the Moorcock story hit all the right spots for me, and is probably my favorite, this Stuart Douglas tale is certainly the most meaningful and well-written of the lot, and for many reasons is the perfect end-tale for the collection.

For my final comments I will just say that, while it’s not the best book Obverse has ever offered, for those whose interests lie in this direction (and I raise my hand as part of this group) it is immensely satisfying and highly recommended.