Bruce Graeme’s fertile imagination is reflected in the sheer volume of his literary output. His chief talent lay in creating tightly constructed plots with sufficient twists in them to keep readers’ interest. On the whole, his methods were conservative rather than innovative, yet he succeeded in adding a personal touch to the conventions of the mystery and detective genre.
Graeme’s most notable departure from the methods of the ordinary crime novel is his use of a criminal as chief protagonist in place of a heroic professional or amateur detective. Blackshirt, the central character in many of Graeme’s novels, is audacious, quick-witted, humorous, tenacious, and resourceful; in short, he possesses many of the qualities usually ascribed to people on the other side of the law. No wonder that over the years the British reading public became enamored of the Blackshirt and Son of Blackshirt (or Lord Blackshirt) series. Furthermore, beginning with Monsieur Blackshirt in 1933, Graeme chronicled the adventures of a seventeenth century Blackshirt ancestor; The Vengeance of Monsieur Blackshirt (1934), The Sword of Monsieur Blackshirt (1936), and The Inn of Thirteen Swords (1938) continue the saga of this character.
Blackshirt leads a double life reminiscent of characters in British novels of the Victorian and Edwardian eras such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). By day Graeme’s character is Richard Verrell, the famed writer of mystery stories, and by night he is Blackshirt, the master criminal. The Blackshirt books are not the only ones in the Graeme canon to use the device of a double life. In The Undetective (1962), for example, the murderer proves to be a pleasant, methodical police detective named Edward Meredith. Despite the fact that the individual killed is a criminal, Meredith still is guilty of murder—and that secret is kept until the book’s finale.
Graeme’s stories are propelled by fast-paced dialogue and brisk narration. Often he achieves an almost breathless pace, demanding the reader’s careful attention. Graeme’s characters do not waste words: Time seems of the essence. They speak in bursts of clever dialogue and quick-witted, sometimes slangy retorts and quips. Seldom do they wax philosophical; indeed, the rapid pace of events prevents their doing so.
Graeme’s ear for dialect and speech patterns is evidenced by the authenticity of his dialogue. His police detectives exchange banter in their characteristically world-weary and sarcastic manner, his gentlemen characters’ speech is articulate and witty, and common folk from working-class areas chatter in colorful, ragged, animated fashion; each type of person addresses others in accordance with...
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