One of the most intriguing of Blackburn's thrillers is his fourth book, Broken Boy, published in 1959 in his native England and released in the US in 1962. The melding of crime, detection, and the supernatural ranks with the best of not only Fowler but groundbreaking genre-benders like Dennis Wheatley, A. Merritt and the stories of Seabury Quinn. While Blackburn is not shy to indulge in pulpy thrills like those last three writers he is more interested in the psychological motivations of characters who employ the occult and supernatural for their own selfish purposes.
The book begins as any standard detective novel with the investigation of a crime. What at first seems like a brutal murder of a prostitute dumped beneath a bridge by an angry and savage john will prove to be something far more complex. General Charles Kirk and his fellow Home Office agents, Michael Howard and Penny Wise, are called in when the prostitute is identified as Gerda Raine, a former East German spy, with a particularly callous and sociopathic nature. She is linked to the selling of British government secrets in exchange for a British passport that would allow her a freer life. But while the reader may think this will morph into a spy novel he will be dead wrong. When Kirk visits Gerda's apartment he meets her very strange landlady and the landlady's son. He also finds a weird idol in her room.
|Queen Ranavalona I - a nasty piece of work|
Mothers and sons play a big part in the story. Each mother Kirk and his team encounter has the odd habit of referring to her no longer living husband in this fashion: "My husband? Oh, he...died." In each case a slight pause before the word "died." Kirk only realizes this strange speech pattern very late in the book. It's a subtle clue to a larger and nightmarish revelation.
There is a point in the book where one of these women reveals her true nature and the entire book shifts in tone. It's a real "Aha!" moment for the reader. What seems like just another detective story with some bizarre plot elements instantly transforms itself. From this point on I kept thinking of the old TV series The Avengers. The finale, however, is something straight out of a 1960s Hammer horror movie or even the weird menace pulps of the 1930s. There is a perfect scene where one of the villains shouts out "You fool. You wretched, interfering, foolish fool." And she punctuates each adjective by slapping her bound captive across the face. How's that for a throwback to the pulp era?
Broken Boy is the kind of book I crave. It has the perfect blend of action and detection, the surreal and the supernatural, and the utterly bizarre. When I come across something as weird as this I want to find every other book the writer has written and read them all. As a matter of fact I've already ordered four more Blackburn supernatural thrillers and eagerly await their arrival in my book crammed house.
Reviews of other John Blackburn thrillers on this blog are hyperlinked in the lists below.
The General Charles Kirk Supernatural Thrillers
(many of which also feature Marcus Levin and his wife Tania)
|John Blackburn, circa 1959|
A Sour Apple Tree (1958)
Broken Boy (1959)
A Ring of Roses (1965)
(aka A Wreath of Roses)
Children of the Night (1966)
Nothing But the Night (1968)
The Young Man from Lima (1970)
For Fear of Little Men (1972)
The Sins of the Father (1979)
Other Thrillers with Bizarre and/or Supernatural Content (without Kirk & crew)
Bury Him Darkly (1969)
Blow the House Down (1970)
Devil Daddy (1972)
Deep Among the Dead Men (1973)
Our Lady of Pain (1974)
Mister Brown's Bodies (1975)
The Face of the Lion (1976)
The Cyclops Goblet (1977)
A Book of the Dead (1984)