My father was born John Robert Stuart Pringle on January 31st, 1897, at an address given as 46 Ramsden Road, Balham, in the Registration District of Wandsworth in the Sub-District of Streatham, London. A tendency to disavow his birth name has created nothing but confusion when trying to track down key events in his life and family history, and has become as much a mystery as the detective fiction he wrote.
When I was a boy, his mother used to call my father Don, though everyone else including my mother knew him as Gerald, so it was no surprise to learn that his first pseudonym was Donald Stuart. This invention wasn’t put into use when he wrote his first story, ‘The Clue of the Second Tooth,’ inspired by sleeping rough on the Thames Embankment while out of work at the start of what was to become known as the Great Depression. ‘The Clue of the Second Tooth’ appeared in the Sexton Blake Library No 105, August 31, 1927. It was published by The Amalgamated Press, price 4d. The illustrator was Arthur Jones. He received a fee of £70 with an advance of £20 for the manuscript to be typed up—it was written on various sheets of paper. No author’s name is credited—that was the way The Amalgamated Press did things at that time. His first stories were published anonymously until the tenth for the Sexton Blake Library, No 255, September 1930, ‘The Death Card’ by Donald Stuart. From this point on he was credited as the author.
Sexton Blake is one of the most written-about characters in the English language and first appeared in 1893 in The Halfpenny Marvel, conveniently filling the gap that followed the death of Mr. Sherlock Holmes when Arthur Conan Doyle killed him off at the Reichenbach Falls in the December 1893 issue of The Strand magazine. Wasting no time, The Halfpenny Marvel published a story called ‘The Missing Millionaire’ written by a jobbing writer, Harry Blyth, under the pen-name Hal Meredeth. The story introduced a character that came to be disparaged as the office-boy’s Sherlock Holmes or the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes. Despite these disparagements, Sexton Blake was often thought to be more like Sherlock Holmes than Holmes. He also lived on Baker Street in London. Sexton Blake soon outgrew his influences and is said to have had even more admirers than Sherlock Holmes, with one magazine devoted to his activities circulating 600,000 copies a month. The golden age of the story papers coincided with Blake’s golden age, as he became far more action-oriented than Holmes, and duelled with a variety of memorable enemies: opium smugglers, bandit chiefs, and the Kaiser! For the greater part of the 20th Century, Blake was a household name and a publishing phenomenon, starring in nearly five thousand stories written by over two hundred authors circulating 600,000 copies a month. In the 1920s and 1930s, Blake took on near-legendary proportions in England and in some parts of what was then the Empire. The stories were published by Amalgamated Press, who also published enormously successful magazines like The Thriller, Union Jack, and Detective Weekly. Today, in the age of the internet, many websites are devoted to preserving the magazine collections and they are regularly traded.
The key persons involved at Amalgamated Press across thirty years from 1904 – 1934 were three editors: W.H. Back, Leonard Pratt, and Harold Twyman. The 200 or so writers feeding various magazines included: Edgar Wallace, Leslie Charteris, Sax Rohmer, Margery Allingham, John Creasey, Peter Cheyney, Gwyn Evans, G.H. Teed, Rex Hardinge, Anthony Skene, Anthony Parsons, Robert Murray, Pierre Quiroule, Gordon Shaw, Edwy Searles Brooks, William Murray Graydon . . . and, of course, Donald Stuart. Many adventures were illustrated by Eric Parker.
From 1912 Amalgamated Press was based in Fleetway House in Farringdon Street in London. In 1959 the name of the company was changed from Amalgamated Press to Fleetway Publications when the Mirror group acquired it. The Sexton Blake Library was eventually closed down in 1964, but Blake lived on through radio and television. Donald Stuart wrote 17 × 30 minute Case Histories, broadcast by BBC radio from August to December in 1967.
The Great Depression of 1929-32 broke out at a time when the United Kingdom was still recovering from the effects of the First World War. It had its origins in the global Great Depression triggered by the October 1929 Stock Market Crash in New York. A slow economic recovery led to a fall in unemployment from 1933 onwards. Though the effects of this recession were uneven, spending money on entertainment was out of the question for most people. 1930 was a tough time to carry on business and called for imaginative and inexpensive forms of entertainment. During the year 1930, Donald Stuart was not only writing for the Amalgamated Press but was turning his attention back to the Theatre which, following family traditions and working as a stage manager, was in his blood.
Donald Stuart took a short break during 1928 from writing Sexton Blake stories, no doubt harking back to his theatrical roots, to write his first stage play called The Shadow, a comedy thriller, produced by Mr. Nicholas Hannen at the Embassy Theatre in London. It featured distinguished comedian Bert Coote and his company.
A press cutting comments:
There is much that is reminiscent of “The Terror” in this new thriller only Mr. Stuart has been more successful in guarding the identity of his master crook than Mr. Wallace was. Viewed from every angle “The Shadow” is a very ingenious play, and, strangely enough the audience derives far more thrill from the play itself than all the accessories, dead bodies, pistol shots, and the like.
The inhabitants of the Police Commissioner’s eerie mansion in London are being killed one by one by a hooded shadowy blackmailer, dressed in black, who seems to have no substance, darting through the numerous secret passages to appear like a shadow. It is up to Scotland Yard to stop the killings and expose the identity of the elusive killer. A novelist and amateur detective and the Commissioner’s daughter unmask the culprit.
The Shadow was made into a film in 1933. It was published as a novel by Wright & Brown in 1934, and rehashed as ‘Danger at Westways’ for the Sexton Blake Library, number 645, November 1938.
During 1929 and 1930 Donald Stuart continued to write Sexton Blake yarns for the Amalgamated Press. No doubt full of confidence in his own infallibility, he began preparations for a second stage production that capitalized on his experience writing for the Amalgamated Press and the success of The Shadow. It was a bold detective melodrama with elaborate stage effects entitled Sexton Blake. He ambitiously formed his own production company, Donald Stuart Productions Limited, to produce it. This newly-formed syndicate was a private company registered on June 5 1930, with an office at 27 Shaftsbury Avenue. Sexton Blake opened on Thursday, September 18 1930, at The Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street, London W1. The theatre was named after the then Prince of Wales. It was in an area to be known as the Latin Quarter, and then simply Soho. It was hoped the production would inaugurate a policy of drama at the Prince Edward Theatre, but this was not to be. Sexton Blake alas did not produce a successful run. The play was imaginative, but far from inexpensive, and would lead to my father’s financial ruin.
Sexton Blake was portrayed by the British actor Arthur Wontner opposite Eva Gray the leading lady, the beautiful and distressed heroine, and with John Roderick as Tinker. The action of the play was continuous. There were 4 acts and 14 scenes.
Act One begins outside the murder victim’s house, 18a Lowndes Square. After some scene setting, the curtains whisk shut, the ‘exterior’ is carried off by the stage hands, then the curtains slide apart to reveal Sir John Raeburn’s bedroom with the body of Sir John Raeburn stretched out on the bed, a knife sticking out of his back!
An investigation begins by Detective Inspector Coutts played by David Hawthorne. There is a butler called Creek and Paul Cairns the victim’s secretary, played by Wilfred Babbage who is evasive and becomes a prime suspect. A young reporter is thrown into the mix called Leslie Waring, played by Arthur Macrae. The act finished outside 18a Lowndes Square again.
Act Two begins in Sexton Blake’s consulting room, Baker Street W1. Mr. Midnight is setting a deadly booby trap while the detective, in turn, lays out bait for the master criminal. Even though the drama is increasing, there’s still room for Mrs. Bardell, played by Dora Gregory, to give a cameo performance. Her malapropisms must have been fun for the actress who played her: “There’s a young lady, Sir, what wants to insult you proficiently!” Tension builds, with the audience knowing that Blake is in great danger while he remains oblivious to the fact. The curtain came down just as Blake trips the booby trap and a bomb explodes. Sexton Blake’s consulting room was blown to bits in front of the audiences eyes. The audience leapt out of their seats! My father’s upbringing included watching Brock’s Crystal Palace firework displays. It was obviously paying off! He loved explosions!
The Daily Telegraph commented:
It is all very exciting. There is not a scene in which some deed of violence is not committed; and one of these—the ‘dynamite’ explosion in Blake’s consulting room—is as ‘realistic’ an effect as we can remember. The whole theatre seems to shake with the detonation and the crash of walls and furniture is terrific.
Act Three begins in the cellar of an empty house. The Midnight gang has gathered. Their leader, his face hidden by the cloak, hat and scarf, arrives dragging the tied and gagged heroine behind him. Tinker also gets captured but Blake, disguised as one of Midnight’s henchmen, comes to the rescue.
With the gang broken up and in custody, Act Four, the final act, again set in Blake’s consulting room, brings the two main protagonists together for a last duel. Blake unknowingly swallows poison and the villain makes his getaway while the detective lies writhing on the floor. He’s saved by Tinker and they set off in pursuit of Midnight who escapes in a racing car leading up to a classical climax of melodrama. Midnight tries to evade capture by driving his racing car through Sunningvale level crossing. He meets a nasty end as his car smashes into a train!
The production required some elaborate and expensive stage effects, including the bomb explosion, and the car smashing into the train at the level crossing. The production also featured abduction in a real taxi cab driving down Baker Street followed by a real motor-cycle. There were three dress rehearsals to get all this technically ‘right on the night.’ Taxi drivers were invited to the first dress rehearsal. Detectives from Scotland Yard were invited to the second.
The reviews were not bad despite the fact a crucial member of the cast was missing. Pedro the bloodhound failed to put in an appearance on the first night. London was searched in vain for a suitable canine actor. Bloodhounds are not only rare but very nervous, except with people they know. Pedro was eventually found in Brighton, and proved to suffer from stage fright.
The Daily Herald commented:
Mr. Donald Stuart, the author, explained that Pedro was only a young bloodhound unused to the ways of the stage and that every time he was brought on to the boards he promptly jumped into the orchestra pit!
The Daily Mail commented:
“Mr. Midnight,” the super-criminal of the story, is nothing if not a hard worker. Before one has had time to look around he has blackmailed and murdered a baronet, abducted the baronet’s daughter, poisoned Sexton Blake’s coffee, and blown a hole in his consulting room. All this and a deal more before he gets himself blown to smithereens in a crash at the Sunningvale level-crossing.
The production was all very exciting but, as ever, the critics try to compare popular entertainment with high brow culture. This is not Jane Austen or Shakespeare, never was, nor ever intended to be. The evening was supposed to be exciting and fun, and not without humour; an entertaining escape from reality. Judging from the many positive comments it was exactly that. Unpretentious fun is what The Thriller and Detective Weekly were intended to be. They teased the reader until they had to read what happens next, usually in a kind of desperate frenzy. This of course was the purpose of thrillers and pulp fiction. Arch criminals needed to be presented properly. We had to fear them. In those days, in order to fear them they were sinister, hunchbacked, and wearing a long coat of black oilskin, a slouched hat, their faces hidden, their eyes glittering . . .
In an interview, Donald Stuart said that he read the earlier Sexton Blake stories when he was a boy, and it was when his failure to become a successful actor led him hungry to the Embankment that his mind went back to Sexton Blake, his daring and his skill, and he wrote The Clue of the Second Tooth.
My father’s foray into theatrical production was likely a financial disaster on account of the unusually high production cost of building and operating the elaborate special effects, coupled with the absence of the vast Sexton Blake readership, which could have packed the theatre for a long run, but simply couldn’t afford to go there. It was imaginative, but would have required a long run to recoup. This was not to be. It was to be a painful lesson learned. Sexton Blake did not generate enough profit, and on December 1, 1930 a receiving order was made against Donald Stuart (who had presumably personally guaranteed some of the costs of the production) on a petition filed October 8th, 1930. The name on the order was John Robert Stuart Pringle, known and described in the Receiving Order as Donald Stuart. The address given was 7, Brunswick Square, London W.C.1. In an attempt to recoup some of the costs, the production went on tour, opening November 24 at the Lyceum, Sheffield. It was well received, but probably went little way in reducing a mountain of debt.
I have no idea what arrangements were made for paying off this bankruptcy order. It must have stalked him for years. He was not discharged from the Bankruptcy until Aug 11, 1956. At the time of this financial disaster my father picked himself up off the floor, and as Donald Stuart continued writing Sexton Blakes at a pace. In 1930, he began contributing to the stable of Union Jack stories.
The death of Edgar Wallace in February, 1932 must have been a sad moment. The Sunday Mail, of June 1932 reported:
There is still much heated discussion as to who is likely to fill Edgar Wallace’s shoes as the most prolific writer of the moment. Personally I am inclined to vote for Mr. Donald Stuart, playwright and author, whose ingenious crime stories, together with the startling rapidity with which they are turned out has already attracted considerable notice. Recently he was asked by a Hollywood concern to write a full-length producers scenario for a mystery film. The usual time allowed for a task of this nature is six weeks or over; Mr. Stuart took just four days. A record, that, I think!
By 1933 my father was also writing at full pelt for Detective Weekly and The Thriller, whilst keeping up a good stable of yarns for The Sexton Blake Library. Stories were emerging thick and fast. Everything was sinister, grim or queer! Mood and atmosphere were everything. Every story was crammed with thrills and surprises, and they rollicked along like a rollercoaster.
Donald Stuart’s output was prodigious. I get a sense of strong financial pressure to deal with the past behind this incredible output. I suspect a large amount of monies received went to the official receiver. I believe this may well be one of the reasons why he sought new outlets for his stories in hardback form, and possibly a way to channel some money away from the receivers clutches. Though Donald Stuart was to continue writing for The Sexton Blake Library, in 1933 he also began writing for a new publishing company called Wright & Brown. ‘The Clue of the Second Tooth’ that started it all off was published by them in 1933 as The Embankment Murder, not under the name Donald Stuart, but the name he would adopt for the rest of his life: Gerald Verner.
The name Gerald Verner I believe must derive from his mother’s stage name, Geraldine Verner, though he never gave me that explanation. I think this change of name was an attempt at a new start, to try to forget the way Sexton Blake, the stage production, had started out so exciting an adventure, but ended up so disappointing, leaving him with a mass of baggage around his neck. Donald Stuart was relegated to waiting in the wings, while Gerald Verner, phœnix-like, took centre stage. In 1934 he also began writing for The Modern Publishing Company under the pseudonyms of Derwent Steele and Nigel Vane.
Donald Stuart wrote six novels for Wright & Brown. The White Friar appeared in 1934, followed by The Man Outside and The Shadow, all published in the same year. The Man In The Dark, The Valley of Terror and Midnight Murder followed in 1935.
In a letter to a friend, written in May 1939, he wrote:
“ In reply to your question regarding The Phantom Pearler my friend Rex Hardinge was in a hurry for a story and I sold him Midnight Murder for use in Detective Weekly.”
The story was published in May 1939, as written by Rex Hardinge, as my father’s letter states—but the story was originally Midnight Murder by Donald Stuart, published by Wright & Brown in 1935. It was not unusual for writers to help each other out if in a fix, because the editors had deadlines that had to be met.
All the elements that made Donald Stuart such a success with his readers can be found in this resurrected edition of Midnight Murder, with its gripping tale of the fabulous pearl of Andapore!
 A receiving order is an order of the court in England or Wales placing the person’s assets under the control of the official receiver, pending formal bankruptcy proceedings.