A while ago I read with great interest A.M.Burrage’s “Captain Dorry” stories, in which an ex-officer becomes a gentleman burglar, with the twist that his victims are the standard villains of right-wing early twenties fiction – war profiteers, corrupt trades unionists and Jews. Especially Jews.
So I was interested to read in Mike Ashley’s excellent Age of the Storytellers that there was another gentleman crook around in the twenties, with the evocative name of Blackshirt. The stories appeared in the New Magazine from December 1924 onwards, and I’ve taken a look, intrigued to see if they had the same political agenda as Burrage’s stories.
The author, Bruce Graeme, was obviously aware of the connotations of the name, since he describes his hero/villain as wearing “no coat, only a soft black shirt and black tie, not unlike the Fascists wear.” However, when at the start of the first story, a character asks, “Blackshirt! Sounds to me like a Fascist!”
Marshall, the police officer who is on Blackshirt’s trail, casts doubt on the idea:
Marshall smiled. “You are on the wrong track, I am afraid, sir, for whereas the Fascisti stand for law and order, Blackshirt is responsible for many mysterious affairs which are decidedly against the law.
So the author is trying to distance himself from the Fascists, while at the same time hardly being critical of them…
Blackshirt’s victims are the rich, and one at least is a nasty industrialist of the type that Captain Dorry would have gone after on principle. Blackshirt’s motive, however, is that he enjoys the excitement of burglary. He was snatched from his nurse when an infant, and brought up by East End thieves who trained him as a pickpocket and burglar. He freed himself from that environment, and became a best-selling author of crime novels, under the name of Richard Verrell.
Then came the war. Who should be the first to answer the call but Verrell, whose soul craved for adventure? Time after time he performed deeds of valour which caused his name to ring loud with renown throughout the army, but miraculously his life was spared and his bravery earned its own reward, for he was presented with the M.M.
“Nine months after the Armistice” (Is that gestation period significant?) Blackshirt was born. Dressed entirely in black, and with a black mask, he engaged in daring burglaries, just for the fun of it. The proceeds are kept in his safe, rather than being fenced. A lot of the book’s adventures are about his putting the goods back where he found them, for the sake of honour.
Verrell is in jeopardy throughout, which makes the series a gripping read. He receives mysterious telephone calls from a woman who has guessed his identity, and who gives him missions to fulfil. He falls in love with her voice. “Gripping tosh” might be a good description of the stories, but I couldn’t stop reading.
I don’t think one can plausibly assign Blackshirt a political motivation. My guess is that Graeme just liked the Fascist’s uniforms, and used them for his own purposes.
Where this text falls into a pattern is that it’s the story of a man for whom civilian life is tame after the war. The analysis is hardly as profound as Arnold Bennett’s account of Charlie Prohack, but it’s in the same area, I think.
The stories also contain a character (Verrell’s servant) who shows that in 1924 writers and readers were still happy with the myth of the fortunate war, and the beneficial moral effect it could have on a man:
He had served two sentences in prison when war was declared, but in his case Armageddon awakened certain sentiments which had been hidden before. He realised that men did not lay down their lives for nothing. He cherished the ideal for which this country went to war, and in doing so delved into the meaning and reality of life and honesty, and discovered the inner consciousness of religion.
What more could you ask?
I hadn’t heard of Blackshirt until recently, but Graeme produced a long series of titles featuring his burglar hero, including some historical ones about Monsieur Blackshirt, his swashbuckling ancestor. He kept writing them at least until the forties. By 1951 he was tired of writing about the character, and his son Roderic took over, writing more in the series until Blackshirt Stirs Things Up in1969.
So through the whole Mussolini period, and the heyday of Oswald Mosley, British readers were thrilling to the adventures of Blackshirt. Why had I never heard of him before?