(taken from The Nelson Lee Library and Bibliography of the Writings of Edwy Searles Brooks by Robert C. Blythe, Revised by Mark Caldicott, 1995)
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Can a man write 800 novels and be completely forgotten? If literary output was an indicator of importance, Edwy Searles Brooks would be a famous writer. His published words amount to about 40 millions, which is equivalent to 800 50,000 word novels.
Brooks was born in Hackney, London on 11th November, 1889. His first published story appeared in the magazine Yes and No published by Shurey's in July 1907, when he was still only seventeen years old. The 3,000 word story , "Mr Dorien's Missing £2000", owed a lot to Edgar Allen Poe in its style, but it earned its author the princely sum of 30 shillings, being paid at the rate of ten shillings per thousand words.
During the next few years he struggled to establish himself, managing to get only a handful of stories published. When Brooks managed to get a story, "Jim Goodwin's Homecoming", published in The Novel Magazine in June 1909, he felt he had arrived, for this monthly featured regular contributions from Conan Doyle, Richard Marsh, J S Fletcher, J S Winter and others.
As time went by, however, Brooks realised success did not come so easily. Nothing more appeared in The Novel Magazine, and Brooks's efforts with other editors must have sorely tried his patience. Some of his rare successes were in the more unlikely papers, for example, Cycling.
The breakthrough came, according to Brooks, when the editor The Gem, Percy Griffith, wanted some St. Jim's stories. Having set about this task, Griffith asked Brooks if he would write a 16,000 words a week serial for The Gem. "The Iron Island" serial began to appear in November 1910 and the onerousness of the task of inventing adventures for the hero, Frank Kingston, week in and week out for over a period of two years was a hard apprenticeship for a new writer, and laid the foundation for his future career.
During 1912 he contributed weekly Clive Derring detective stories to Cheer Boys Cheer, and also his first two Sexton Blake stories to the Union Jack. These latter were "The Motor Bus Mystery" and "The Coffee Stall Mystery". In August 1912 he appeared for the first time in Boys Friend Library with "Canvas and Caravan" written as R W Comrade.
Edward Oswald Brooks, his brother, was working for the film company Gaumont and Hepworth in America. This, and the family's ownership of the New Standard Cinema, Croydon (changed by them to the Standard Playhouse Cinema) triggered Brooks into trying to break into the screenplay market. A film producer, suitably named Mr J Wallett Waller, showed interest in one of the Yes or No contributions "Snake in the Grass" published in November 1914. Waller wanted to submit it as a scenario to Cunard films, but unfortunately Brooks had not reserved the film rights and Shurey's refused to co-operate. Brooks produced a different scenario, "Unfit", but the idea fizzled out, and with it Brooks's early attempts to get into film writing.
During 1913-14 Brooks made contributions to Boy's Friend Weekly, Boy's Journal, The Dreadnought (including a Sexton Blake serial), The Scout and Yes or No.. He also wrote substitute Greyfriars stories for The Magnet.
It was in June 1915 that The Nelson Lee Library was launched, featuring Nelson Lee the detective, and his young assistant Nipper. Brooks immediately submitted stories, and "Twenty Fathoms Deep" appeared in September 1915. By the end of the year Brooks was writing the majority of the stories for the paper, and 34 of 1916 stories. From March 1917 onwards, Brooks produced all the stories. He developed series such as The League of the Green Triangle, Jim the Penman, Eileen Dare, and The Circle of Terror. Then Brooks was commissioned to write a series which combined school and detective stories for which Brooks created a new school. Brooks did so in July 1917, naming the school "St. Frank's" after his wife to be Frances Goldstein (Franky). Thereafter, for 16 years, week after week, Brooks produced a 20,000 word St. Frank's story.
This was not all, however, for in addition to the increasing St. Frank's commitment, Brooks contributed regularly to Union Jack, and wrote several stories for The Sexton Blake Library. In December 1918, a special Christmas number introduced Rupert Waldo - the Wonder Man. Brooks could not have realised when he created Waldo the long-lasting importance this inspiration was to have for his career. In the opening story some of the unusual qualities of Waldo are revealed, for he has the strength of six men, is impervious to pain, is shot, burned in a fire, but is able to shrug off his injuries and elude capture. In this story, however, Waldo is nothing short of a scoundrel. He is a murderer, the motive being to rid himself of a blackmailer threatening to reveal some evil deed of Waldo's past. Worse than this, however, he has framed a completely innocent man in order to get him arrested for the murder by planting evidence in the innocent man's caravan. These are the actions not of a gentleman crook but of true bounder. The way in which Brooks remoulded the Waldo character over the years is discussed later, but suffice for now to note his entry onto the Brooks stage of players.
Brooks had now reached that phenomenal level of output which he was to sustain for the next twenty years or so. In December 1918 he married Frances, and the bond was a happy and lifelong partnership.
All his life Brooks paid unstinting tribute to Frances for the great help she had given him in the typing of the stories, and the suggestions regarding them. In the early years Frances would type stories from a dictating machine, but later, as their mutual understanding and proficiency developed, she would type direct from his dictation. Frances paid a crucial role in maintaining the quality of the work.
Brooks and Frances prided themselves on producing clean copy for publication, and delivered to predetermined deadlines. Surviving carbons of manuscripts show very few amendments. Compositors and artists would have had great regard for a contributor who gave them time to do their jobs well, without the panics caused through last-minute copy.
The St. Frank's stories were reprinted several times in various forms, in Schoolboy's Own Library and The Popular. A notable series of reprints were the Monster Library editions which ran from November 1925 to May 1927.
The Nelson Lee Library dwindled in popularity and eventually folded in 1933. As St. Frank's disappeared from centre-stage in Brooks's career, he began to look for other outlets.
Some quite excellent Sexton Blake stories from Brooks's pen had graced the Union Jack and Sexton Blake Library in the 'twenties. In addition to stories of Rupert Waldo, whose career was steadily developing, Brooks also introduced us in the pages of Union Jack to Honourable "Useful" Eustace Cavendish, a nobleman in the mould of Lord Peter Wimsey who provided assistance to Blake in a number of his escapades. Union Jack, like The Nelson Lee Library, folded in 1933, but continued as Detective Weekly. In the pages of Detective Weekly it was business as usual for a while for Blake, Waldo and Cavendish, and Brooks's contributions to this paper were well up to the standard of the Union Jack yarns.
With a dwindling market for his stories, Brooks looked outside Amalgamated Press. During 1933 he made weekly contributions to Boy's Magazine, published by Allied Newspapers. However, although in period between February 1932 and January 1934 he introduced stories of the detective Falcon Swift, the Terrorland series, the Bulldog Hamilton series, and the Corsair series, this market dried up in January 1934.
Brooks now tried to get into the adult hardback novel market. For this assault on "respectable" detective fiction, he combined an entirely new character with an old favourite. This team was Inspector William "Grouser" Beeke and Sergeant Eustace Cavendish. The first novel featuring these two, "The Strange Case of the Antlered Man", appeared in February 1935. The second, "The Grouser Investigates", appeared in April 1936. But there were problems with Harrap's, the publishers, and Brooks has since related how in "The Grouser Investigates" he had to make major revisions to his character Warren Clinton, who was thought to be "too facetious", before Harrap's would publish. This level of interference was too much for him, and instead of the third story of the series, "Mr Nemesis", appearing as a novel, Brooks gave up with Harrap's and sold it to Detective Weekly in which it ran as a serial in 1937. He persisted with the Beeke & Cavendish combination in a number of short stories, also in Detective Weekly. Brooks' instinct for the market was sound, as we shall see, but his unfortunate first choice of publisher kept him out of the adult detective thriller novel market for several years. The other attempt to enter the adult hardback fiction market concerned a Western, "Ghost Gold", published as R W Comrade in September 1935. The publishers Rich & Cowan were obviously not impressed, for no further Brooks stories appeared from this publisher.
This period of his career, having to seek out new markets for his stories, must have been reminiscent of earlier struggles.
He may have switched his attention to D C Thomson Ltd, who were the major rivals of Amalgamated Press. Based in Dundee, they were less afflicted by paper shortages and other problems which eventually brought so many of the southern-based story papers to an end, and they have dominated the market since that time It is likely that Brooks contributed far more to Thomson's than the 26 Dixon Hawke Library stories spanning 1923 to 1937 and a serial in The Rover from December 1936 to March 1937. Brooks' Marco the Miracle Man character appeared again in the Dixon Hawke stories in The Adventure, but the character is significantly altered and it is impossible to tell whether Brooks had any hand in their production, although it does seem unlikely. Bill Lofts, the renowned bibliographer, recounts a meeting with Frances Brooks, after Brooks's death, during which she showed him a copy of The Skipper in which she said there was an Brooks story; but she could not identify this story. The difficulty faced when tracking down any Thomson contributor is that the stories were published anonymously and were subject to significant editorial re-writing. They were also recycled and changed by editors without reference to the original author. Thus it is impossible to be certain of Brooks' total contribution to D C Thomson, and his association with them remains, as with most of the Thomson writers, a mystery.
Another publisher for whom Brooks contributed a series of stories was George Newne. He wrote in every edition of their new paper The Buzzer featuring a new character The Invisible Speedman. These appeared between October 1937 and June 1938 when the paper folded.
Brooks was too good a writer to be out of the limelight for long. In January 1937 he made his debut in the new flagship of Amalgamated Press, The Thriller, with his latest hero, Norman Conquest. Brooks acknowledged his debt to Monty Haydon for the inspiration of Norman Conquest. Haydon was, it will be recalled, the instigator of Harold May's departure from Nelson Lee Library, a move Brooks deplored. As the controlling director of The Thriller, however, Haydon redeemed himself, for he had gathered together a team of young new writers and in recruiting Brooks, an old hand, he paid him the compliment of recognising his adaptability and lasting power.
The Conquest stories were an immediate and outstanding success. The character of Norman Conquest was distilled over a long period of time, the end product of a process commencing nearly twenty years earlier. Norman Conquest is the metamorphosed Waldo the Wonder Man, and it is fascinating to see the evolution of the Waldo character since his debut in 1918.
When Waldo entered the scene, as has already been said, he was a murderer and a bounder. Brooks could not at this time have had the future Waldo in mind at all. Over the years, Brooks changed Waldo's character little by little, into the gentleman-crook of the later stories.
Norman Conquest made his first appearance in The Thriller in January 1937, the same month that Waldo disappeared, and the character is so readily identified as that of Waldo that the link is obvious. And yet the subtlety of the difference between the two characters is the key to Brooks's success from 1937 to the end of his life. He stripped away the excesses of Waldo. Conquest is strong - but it is the strength of an athletic and normal being - not the strength of six men. He is not impervious to pain, and certainly not to bullet wounds. Conquest tackles only those men whose crookedness is beyond the law and who can stand to be robbed by their ill-gotten gains. The innocent never suffer at the hands of Conquest. Moreover, Conquest is not hunted by the police - he is not so blatantly crooked as his forerunner. After the initial story written under his own name, all subsequent Conquest stories and novels were written under the pen-name of Berkeley Gray.
It was through the Conquest stories that Brooks finally made a sustained entry into the adult hardback fiction market. Brooks had served a long apprenticeship, via Waldo, and his new character was ready to stand alongside the more illustrious desperadoes of hardback fiction. The stories which appeared in The Thriller between January 1937 to December 1939 were reproduced, linking together several episodes, by Collins as hardback novels from August 1938 onwards.
In these early adventures Conquest arrives from India, where he had spent his childhood, and where his father had had a successful tea business: successful, that is, until a swindling Geoffrey Mortimer had become a partner in the firm. Conquest had left India as a result of his dislike of Mortimer and had travelled the world, but now returned to England to revenge his father's ruin and death through Mortimer's trickery ("Mr. Mortimer Gets The Jitters") His first visit to Mortimer's home has a significant result, for it is here that he meets Joy "Pixie" Everard, Mortimer's secretary, a tiny dark-haired elfin-faced girl who promptly resigns her job to side with Conquest. Soon the pair encounter the law in the shape of Inspector William "Sweet William" Williams, and Williams' long-running love/hate relationship with Conquest and Joy begins.
After seeing off Mortimer, and his partners Glanford and Glibley, Conquest takes on Rurik Voegler, who becomes the nearest the Conquest saga has to an arch-enemy ("Vultures Ltd."). Williams is promoted to Chief-Inspector and Conquest moves into his first home, "Underneath the Arches", a converted railway viaduct, which Voegler fails to destroy with a bomb. For all his fondness for Joy, Norman almost comes a cropper when he encounters the beautiful Penelope Trevor ("Miss Dynamite"). He neglects Joy shamefully and is almost led to his death by the evil Miss Trevor. It is Joy's loyalty and bravery, almost at the expense of her own life, which saves him, and bonds their friendship unbreakably. During this adventure, another bond is made, that between Conquest and a tramp he befriends and saves from accusations of murder. Mandeville Livingstone is a man who, having lost his wife and child, has taken to the road, earning a living by making wooden toys. After his encounter with Conquest, he becomes his Man Friday, and part of the team.
And so Conquest, Joy Everard, and Mandeville Livingstone go from strength to strength. In the Brooks tradition of The Green Triangle, The Circle of Terror and the Crescent of Dread, Conquest next take on The Black Ring ("Conquest Marches On"). A succession of evil doers are given their just desserts: Humphrey Piggott, whose inhuman mining operation is uncovered when Norman, Joy and Livingstone take a holiday in Wales ("Leave It To Conquest"); night-club-owner Paul "Steve the Croat" Stefanovich, whose battle with Conquest climaxed in the ancient walls of Roxenham Castle ("Conquest Takes All"); the savage aboriginal son of the Duke of Chalston "Towoomba Dick", who tried to turned his victims into life-size wax effigies ("Six to Kill"); The Gas Men and a second encounter with Rurik Voegler ("Meet The Don"); the defence of Leo Hurst, escaping from wrongful imprisonment for murder instead of the villainous Humphrey Casson ("Convict 1066"); and gangster "Mayfair" Tony Crawford and his mob ("Thank You Mr Conquest").
A feature of Brooks' writing from this time forward is the obvious influence of P G Wodehouse. Brooks is not averse to stealing some of the famous Wodehouse similes. For instance, in "Vultures Ltd" we find: "Mr Williams looked rather like a man who, strolling along the railway, has just caught the up-express in the small of his back", reminiscent of Wodehouse's "The Inimitable Jeeves" wherein Wooster's Aunt Agatha's demeanour "was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back". Certainly the early Conquest stories are have a Wodehousian buoyancy which is not so evident in the early work.
Norman Conquest was not the only new character to pave the way to the future. Equally important to Brooks in the late thirties was the advent of "Ironsides" Cromwell of Scotland Yard. For these stories, Brooks used the pseudonym of Victor Gunn.
The history of the early Cromwell is gloriously confusing. In September 1939 a series of the Cromwell stories appeared in The Thriller. These were war-time stories, with Cromwell pitted against Nazi spies. Cromwell's character was lifted directly from that of "Grouser" Beeke, but Cromwell's assistant, Sergeant Potter, owed much to Bunter and nothing at all to Eustace Cavendish. True there was a Cavendish-type figure called Johnny Lister sharing the action with Cromwell in the first three stories, but Lister was a diplomat on holiday, not a policeman. But, also in September 1939, the first of a series of hardback novels of Cromwell appeared. For this novel, "Footsteps of Death", Brooks reworked a "Grouser" Beeke and Cavendish story, "Mr Nemesis", originally in Detective Weekly in 1937. Beeke, of course, became Cromwell, but to complicate matters Cavendish became Johnny Lister, here a police sergeant, a product of Hendon college, and not a diplomat. The second novel in the series, "Ironsides of the Yard", was a reprint of the first three Thriller stories. To escape from the tangle of roles Brooks declared in "Ironsides of the Yard" that Lister had left the police force and joined the diplomatic service, and thus Lister was able to take part in the previous diplomat-on-holiday role, and Potter had become Cromwell's sergeant. The third novel, "Ironsides Smashes Through", also a war-time story partly taken from The Thriller, featured Potter with Lister absent. In the fourth, "Ironsides' Lone Hand", rewritten from a Sexton Blake story from 1933, Potter has disappeared and Lister is reinstated. From that time onwards the Cromwell and Lister partnership remained firm.
As well as novels for Collins, Brooks also established a relationship with the publishers Gerald G. Swan, and created a new gallery of characters. He invented two new schools, Whitelands (written as Reginald Browne) and Westchester (written as Edward Thornton), and several stories appeared in the early 1940's. Also for Swan, in "The Black Skull Murders" (as Carleton Ross), he introduced Bill Morrow and Jacqueline "Pinky" Pinker, reporters, with McGuinnis the editor, and "Fishface" Haddock of Scotland Yard. This seemed to be the beginning of a series, but no further stories appeared.
For Mellifont Publications he wrote "The Black Inquisitor" (as Rex Madison), introducing Dr Endicott the medico-legal expert, Tubs his assistant and Chief Inspector Wills. Again this could have been the beginning of a series but no further tales appeared.
Meanwhile the Conquest saga continued undaunted. War-time brought significant changes to Conquest's life. A stricken German bomber crashes onto and destroys "Underneath The Arches", destroying Conquest's beautiful Hispano roadster and almost killing Joy in the process. This precipitates Conquest into a single-handed invasion of Germany. ("Six Feet of Dynamite").
The war also saw the end of The Thriller stories, and when these were exhausted as hardback editions, Brooks revisited the old Sexton Blake/Waldo stories and rewrote them as Conquest novels. In the first of these adaptations ("Blonde For Danger", based on the Sexton Blake Library story "The Midnight Lorry Crime"), Conquest finds a replacement for the destroyed Hispano when he persuades the racing drive J J Pace to part with his "Pace Special", a beautiful cream and chromium racer. Norman and Joy moved into their new home (acceptably chaperoned by Livingstone and Joy's former nurse Miss Susan Bliss) in the penthouse of Conquest Court, their own block of apartments in Park Lane. The manager of the building, George Barrow, and the porter Fred Freeman join the cast, and when Norman and Joy marry, and encounter Rurik Voegler for the third and last time on their honeymoon ("Mr Ball Of Fire"), the stage is set for the rest of their many adventures. Williams is promoted to Superintendent and Sergeant "Mac" Davidson replaces the earlier Sergeant Woodhouse as Sweet William's regular assistant.
During the 1940's Brooks produced very little, if any, original work. Every Conquest and Cromwell novel was a reprint or a reworking of an earlier story. All the Swan stories were re-workings of old material. Indeed, over his whole career, and more than any other writer, perhaps, Brooks used and reused old stories. Nelson Lee Library, Union Jack, Detective Weekly, Sexton Blake Library and other papers were plundered for material.
This reworking took several forms. Sometimes the story was lifted directly from the earlier version. This happened with the conversion of the Detective Weekly Beeke and Cavendish stories into Cromwell stories. The words of the story, even the names of the supporting characters, are unchanged. Sometimes the plot and sequence of events were retold, expanded or contracted, and new characters used. Brooks retold many of the original Waldo stories in D C Thomson's Dixon Hawke Library as Marco the Miracle Man stories. The character was, of course, Waldo simply given another name. Or we may find, for instance, an old Sexton Blake story retold as a Cromwell story, with Cromwell taking Blake's role and Lister taking Tinker's role. Converting the Blake/Waldo stories to Conquest stories is a more complicated task, and here Brooks has to use his ingenuity to the full since Conquest often takes both the Waldo and Blake roles at the same time. Sometimes this can lead to inconsistencies in the stories, for example where in one story Conquest declares (taking the former Waldo role) that he takes no interest in old criminal cases, while in another story (taking the former Blake role) he reaches from his bookshelf an index of cuttings of criminal cases. Some of the Waldo/Blake plots are successfully converted while others are stretched to incredulity. One of the treasures of the London Old Boys' Book Club Nelson Lee Library collection is a copy of Detective Weekly which belonged to Brooks and in which he has scribbled the amendments to a Waldo story ("The Ten-Minute Trap") in order to rewrite it as a Conquest story ("The Spot Marked X - part two"). Reading the old and new versions of stories is an entertainment in itself, and it is not unusual for a story to appear in three or more versions. For instance, an early Union Jack story "The Wager of Death" appears expanded as a Dixon Hawke Library tale "The Circle of Silence", shortened again for Nelson Lee Library as "The Fateful Wager", and reworked as the Victor Gunn novel "Nice Day For a Murder".
From 1950 the writing pattern changed. The Brooks partnership moved to a less strenuous writing cycle, producing two or three Conquest and two or three Cromwell stories every year. The stories now were mainly originals, although the odd reworked story appeared up until as late as 1959, and were plotted and structured as full-length novels. "Dare-Devil Conquest", written in 1950, was the first Conquest story with a plot which had not had a previous existence outside the hardback form. It was made into the 1954 film "Park Plaza 605" starring Tom Conway, and featuring stalwarts of British cinema such as Sid James (as Bill Williams) and Richard Wattis. Brooks was now achieving a degree of wealth and fame. After a lifetime of incredibly hard work, Edwy and Frances Brooks were able to take things a little easier - producing a mere five novels a year! And Brooks began to achieve recognition abroad, most notably in Germany where his Cromwell novels not only sold well, but were made into films, and radio and television productions.
Conquest continued his adventures unabated. Steve The Croat makes a return appearance, this time on home ground in the Yugoslavian mountains ("Follow the Lady"), and we are introduced to Norman's previously-unsuspected relations when he visits the home of his ancestors, Altonmere Hall in Cumberland, to face the old family enemy "Black Roger" Gaunt ("Conquest Goes Home"). And some fine Cromwell mysteries appeared, from the light-hearted, almost tongue-in-cheek "Alias the Hangman" to the atmospheric and chilling "The Body Vanishes".
Although Brooks's writing powers were showing some signs of fading in the later books, particularly in the Victor Gunn novels, nevertheless the standard of writing remained remarkably high. For example, "Conquest On The Run", written in 1960, is excellent. It has within it a moment of tense drama when Conquest finds himself having to choose between saving the life of Joy and saving the life of a young child showing a power not found in the early writing. The wrapper of this book features an appallingly inaccurate illustration by Barbara Walton, who went on to produced further inaccuracies on later covers, crowned by spelling the author's name incorrectly on "Call Conquest For Danger".
Outside of his fictional world of action, heroics, battle, murder and sudden death, Brooks was a quiet, home loving man. He enjoyed motoring, and had driven for over fifty years without a single accident. He belonged to the select band of veteran motorists, and his love of motoring is apparent in the loving descriptions of motor cars, particularly the more luxurious and racing varieties, and in the number of adventures which have their beginning in an incident on the road. He developed a knowledge of electricity and mechanics which was amazing for a untutored person. His skills and inventiveness in this and in carpentry and gadgetry may have been "inherited" from his grandfather. Brooks was a keen golfer, played snooker better than average, and could also paint and draw exceedingly well.
"Curtains for Conquest?" was published in 1966 and proved to be Brooks's final novel. Of this last Conquest book it is known that Brooks resisted persuasion by Collins to change the title, almost as if he had some inkling that this was indeed the end.
Brooks died suddenly on 2nd December 1965 at the age of seventy-six. It is indicative of the closeness of this remarkably happy couple that Frances' death followed closely in 1968.
If literary greatness were measured in terms of hours of pure pleasure per person achieved by an author's work, or measured by the quality of craftsmanship - the ability to produce endless carefully plotted, clever and entertaining stories cleanly and on time - then E S Brooks would rank with the greatest. Perhaps literature will one day recognise that the ability to entertain and capture the reader is one of its more fundamental values, and that a body of work as extensive and as entertaining as that contained in this bibliography deserves to be recognised in the history of English literature.
Whether this recognition comes or not, it is the gift of any writer
that they remain alive for as long as there are those who wish
to read their words. E S Brooks' stories continue to be treasured
by his many followers for their freshness, simplicity and openness
of emotion. Through the longer running series, and particularly
in the St. Frank's stories, we come to know his fictional world
more and more intimately, and recognise it as one where the old
values of honour and decency are valued. It is a world which can
be trusted, and in which the true human spirit is at home. Brooks
has many loyal followers, and for these he will remain alive for
many years to come.
Mark Caldicott, 1995.