The Return of Blackshirt

A few weeks ago I read Bruce Graeme’s Blackshirt (1925), about an ex-officer who after the war feels starved of excitement, and becomes a dashing gentleman burglar, clothed all in black.

That book ends with a very definite closure – Blackshirt reformed, and married to the girl who had been acting as his conscience. There didn’t seem much scope for a sequel – yet during the twenties and thirties, Graeme would produce at least a dozen.

I therefore took a look at The Return of Blackshirt (1927) to find out what happened next. In this book, Graeme has made use of the twenties novelist’s favourite device – selective amnesia. Blackshirt and his wife are heading off on their honeymoon, when their train crashes. He thinks his wife is dead, he is traumatised, he forgets the whole episode of their relationship, and he goes back to his wicked burgling ways.

Graeme is very good at manufacturing jeopardy – Blackshirt is soon being hunted by the police, the newspapermen and the underworld, as well as his doughty little wife, who was not dead after all. The book’s atmosphere is like one of those dreams where everything constantly goes wrong; Blackshirt the master-criminal is hurled from one desperate situation to another as the net closes around him.

I think that what Graeme is telling his readers (and what they wanted to hear) is that while crime is an exciting sport, to indulge in it is playing with disaster. When the gentleman crook is on the run in this book, he goes to “the underworld” of the East End. Graeme’s description of this part of London is rather breathtaking for the way it equates physical with moral squalor:

Though he felt an infinite pity for the poor, unfortunate people, doomed to live their lives in the smoky, polluted atmosphere of the East, he realised at the same time that more often than not the fault lay with the people themselves.

He saw with his own eyes the efforts made by tender-hearted slum-workers to alleviate the hard lot of the people, the unceasing struggle of the local ministers to inculcate a sense of cleanliness, mental and physical, the care of Government servants to raise the level of the living; but he saw also the people laugh and smirk at the workers, sneer at the ministers, and metaphorically thumb their noses at the officials.

Like swine they were content to wallow in muck and filth, resenting interference. Of what use baths other than as handy receptacles for the lumber of the house? Of what good dustbins when it was so much easier to throw the refuse out of the window?

A few weeks ago I asked the question “Is Blackshirt Fascist?” and came to the conclusion that he probably wasn’t. But this passage – well, it’s about as right-wing as the outpourings poor bitter souls who email replies to the Comment articles on the Daily Telegraph website, and accuse mostly Simon Heffer of being a soft-hearted pinko.

I shall investigate further – if only because at the end of this book, Graeme seems once again to have written himself into a corner, and put Blackshirt into permanent retirement. The next in the series is Blackshirt Again. I just hope the author doesn’t use the cheesy old device of amnesia to get the plot moving again. If he does, i shall give up on him.


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