Is “Blackshirt” a fascist?

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?

12 Comments

  1. Posted June 23, 2008 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Wasn’t Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond’s motivations similar? Didn’t he take up an adventurous life to make up for the lack of excitement after the War?

  2. Posted June 24, 2008 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    Yes indeed. And in The Black Gang Drummond is very much one of those who takes it upon himself to punish those whom the law can’t touch – profiteers, Trades Unionists, Sinn Feiners, Jewish white slave traders, and so on. The Black Gang wear black clothes and hoods that must have reminded people at the time of Mussolini’s blackshirts – and maybe even of the white hoods worn by the heroic Ku Klux Klan in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

  3. Jessica
    Posted June 24, 2008 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    Hmm, I don’t remember the Ku Klux Klan-like hoods, although there is the reference to the Spanish Inquisition in the first chapter.

    The thing to bear in mind about The Black Gang is that it is something of a one-off. In The Third Round, Sapper goes back to making the plot a straight clash between Drummond and Peterson (a relationship that owes a great deal to Holmes and Moriarty). He never really goes back to the overtly political thriller in terms of plot (the imagery, of course, has some very political overtones).

    My suspicion is that this was down to sales. The Black Gang had the weakest sales of the Drummond books taken overall, and McNeile was nothing if not a businessman when it came to his writing. I would love to see sales stats of the Blackshirt stories for comparative purposes.

  4. Posted June 24, 2008 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to see the Blackshirt sales stats, too. The books were published by Harrap – I don’t know if there is a Harrap archive including sales ledgers.
    The books must have been successful, since new series were commissioned for various magazines, and the list of sequels, as I indicated in the main post, is very long.

  5. Posted June 25, 2008 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Hoods. Most of the time the gang are just described as being dressed “from head to toe in black.” The hoods are explicitly mentioned in Chapter 17 – “a dozen black-cowled, black-hooded figures came swarming in through the door.”

  6. Jessica
    Posted June 26, 2008 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Ah, thanks. They are ‘masked’ in the last chapter, which is where I was getting confused.

  7. Posted June 26, 2008 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    The book was serialised in the Sovereign Magazine, Mar-Sep 1922. When I get a chance I’ll take a look, and see what the illustrator made of the costumes. And also check to see whether the text is substantially the same as in the book version.

  8. Andy Frayn
    Posted June 26, 2008 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a marked contrast to “War is War” by “Ex-Private X” (Burrage), which is the only other thing I know by him… Can you offer a comparison, George?

  9. Posted June 26, 2008 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Burrage is a writer who rather fascinates me, because he wrote in so many different styles and genres. During the war he served as a private, while supplementing his army pay by writing – mostly light romances. In “War is War”, as I remember, he explains that editors did not particularly want his war stories at that time.
    In the immediate post-war period he diversified into other genres, and wrote several stories about ex-soldiers. These fall into a pattern typical of the time, in which those who fought and sacrificed are contrasted with those who profited from the war. In “The Enemy over Yonder” (Grand Magazine, 1919) a shell-shocked ex-officer murders an offensive war profiteer – an action is thoroughly endorsed by the narrative. The Captain Dorry series (Lloyds magazine, 1921) feature a pair of gentleman crooks who steal only from the enemies of society – profiteers, socialists, Jews, etc. The stories are well done, but don’t seem to have been very successful. I can’t trace a second series, and they don’t seem to have made it into hard covers, unlike Graeme’s “Blackshirt” series.
    As time went on, Burrage wrote in several other genres, including boys’ fiction. A book that I have read and enjoyed greatly is “Poor Dear Esme”. This is about a boy who for absurd reasons of plot dresses up as a girl and attenmds a girls’ school. I read this in the sedate surroundings of the Bodleian Library Upper Reading Room, and had to stop myself from snorting loudly with amusement at some parts of the novel.
    In 1930 he cashed in on the “war books boom” to write “War is War”, which Cyril Falls, in his survey considered one of the most offensive of the genre. Burrage did not hide the scorn that he, as an educated private soldier, had for the quality of some of his officers. (Another educated private who felt the same was the playwright H.F.Maltby.)
    At about this time, I think, Burrage started writing ghost stories, and insofar as he has a literary reputation today it rests on these; some are in print, in various collections. Those that I have read are most enjoyably spooky.
    Reginald Pound in his history of the Strand Magazine links Burrage with Herbert Shaw as:
    “two Bohemian temperaments that suffused and at times confused gifts from which more was expected than come forth. They had a precise knowledge of the popular short story as the product of calculated design. Both privately despised it, though it was their living.”

  10. Dave Bell
    Posted September 5, 2008 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget the early Simon Templar stories. They’re scattered with clues that he was in the Army during the war.

    Also the characters in “Berry & Co.”.

    Two of my Great-Uncles were in the Police in the 1920s, and stories passed through the family suggest that the adventurous gentleman was real enough.

    Finally, the M.M. is the Military Medal. Which tells us that Verrell was not an officer.

  11. David Jones
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read about these Blackshirt books,and would love to read them, but I’ve never managed to find one. I still search in charity and antiquarian shops, but so far, in vain.

    • Posted August 30, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

      David – You can find Blackshirt books through the Bookfinder website. Click here to see a list of them.


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