Friday, April 15, 2011

FFB: Broken Boy - John Blackburn

Readers who enjoy the Peculiar Crimes Unit detective novels of Christopher Fowler and are impatient for the next Bryant & May adventure into the bizarre and macabre should turn to the works of John Blackburn as a more than suitable substitute. His books are amazingly similar in structure and theme to Fowler's work. Blackburn also shares Fowler's interest in arcane legends and folklore as well as the secrets of old London's infrastructure and architecture. I have to thank Mike Ripley for sending me a promo on Top Notch Thrillers, a reprint line he edits for Ostara Publishing. In that email there was some info on Blackburn that prompted me to investigate this writer. Though Blackburn wrote straight crime and straight espionage as well, it is his own special blending of crime supernatural and espionage that has made him according to the Top Notch Thriller publicity "the link between Dennis Wheatley and James Herbert."

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
The title refers to that idol - a disturbing figurine of apparently African origin with blind eyes and unnaturally disjointed arms and legs. It is this object that leads Kirk and his team to the discovery of a strange cult in the town of Minechester. With the help of an anthropologist and a medical doctor Kirk learns that the idol is tied to ancient black magic studies with their roots in the French Revolution era that made their way to Madagascar where purportedly they were adopted by the very real historical figure of Ranavalona the Cruel. 

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
  # also with Marcus Levin and Tania

John Blackburn, circa 1959
A Scent of New-Mown Hay (1958)
  US paperback reprint title: A Reluctant Spy
A Sour Apple Tree (1958)
#Broken Boy (1959)
The Gaunt Woman (1962)
#A Ring of Roses (1965) US title: A Wreath of Roses
Children of the Night (1966)
Nothing But the Night (1968)
#The Young Man from Lima (1970)
The Household Traitors (1971)
#For Fear of Little Men (1972)
#The Face of the Lion (1976) - Marcus Levin only
#The Sins of the Father (1979)
A Beastly Business (1982) - crossover book features Bill Easter & Peggy Tey (see below)
The Bad Penny (1985) - with Bill Easter

Other Supernatural & Bizarre Thrillers
   * feature Bill Easter & Peggy Tey
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 Cyclops Goblet (1977)
A Book of the Dead (1984)

Crime, Espionage & Suspense
Dead Man Running (1960)
Blue Octavo (1963) US title: Bound to Kill
Colonel Bogus (1964) US title: Packed for Murder
The Winds of Midnight (1964) US title: Murder at Midnight
Dead Man's Handle (1978)


  1. You had me with the reference to Fowler's Bryant & May books, though it's not the somewhat supernatural elements I read them for but the characters and their interplay with each other and the rest of the world. Still, this does look interesting. Perhaps when my budget recovers from buying the COMPENDIUM by Ellen Nehr I'll seek one of these out.

  2. They sound interesting, and decent packaging, which usually means the publisher thinks they have something here.

  3. They sound good to me, John. You an BV Lawson: two miinds with but a single thought. I'll check around and see if I can find a copy or two of Blackburn's books. Never heard of him, but lately, that's not saying much. ;)

  4. Given your interest in occult detectives and cover art I wondered if you were familiar with Violet Books Gallery:Weird Detectives here:

    Ron Smyth

  5. Ron -

    Not only am I familiar with Violet Books and Jessica Salmonson (from whom I used to buy and sell books several years ago) I have written for "The Weird Review." I have several articles there that are about 10 years old. One on Margery Lawrence's Dr. Pennoyer, one on Sax Rohmer's Moris Klaw, an essay on "The Monkey's Paw" and some others I can't remember.

    Thanks for the link. Coincidentally, I own several of the books pictured.

  6. I'm not familiar with Margery Lawrence or Dr. Pennoyer. Another author for me to investigate.

  7. Hmmm. You had me intrigued with Avengers vibe (which you mentioned in your comment on my Blue Octavo review). But I'm not sure that Avengers mixed with a Hammer film ending in a book that you recommend for those who like Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit books is quite me. But, I have made a note of The Broken Boy and will probably give it a try if I find a copy.