Zenith Lives! by Various Authors, ed. Stuart Douglas. Book review

obverseZENITH LIVES! by Various Authors, ed. Stuart Douglas, Obverse Books, Paperback £9.99

Reviewed by I O’Reilly

Who the flying passarola is Monsieur Zenith? Not the Rick-Astley look-alike from the comic fandom?

No. Monsieur Zenith is probably the coolest cat that you may never have heard of:

“Upon a couch in a room of black and silver a figure of white marble came to life.

A bell rang; and a Japanese pushed the curtains aside to stand down in front of the couch.

‘You rang, excellency.’

The figure of white marble opened crimson-irised eyes. Instantly his strange exotic charm became apparent; the debonair recklessness of his face; the fact that he was a true albino.

‘Put out some clothes, Oyani.’

‘His excellency will dine at home?’

The eyes of the albino turned towards a yen-hok, the pipe in which opium is smoked.

‘I have dined already; I am going out. I have had sad dreams, Oyani. I need to amuse myself.’ “

– “The Box of Ho Sen,” from Detective Weekly

At a time when Sherlock Holmes was getting a bit old in the tooth for running around waterfalls and James Bond still hadn’t emerged (c.1920-1935), there was private gentleman-adventurer-detective Sexton Blake, and his nemesis was Monsieur Zenith the Albino. Sexton Blake was like Sherlock Holmes but with a boxers build and sensibility. He picked up, dusted down and kicked in the trousers where Sherlock left off.

Monsieur Zenith the albino on the other hand was pure class. He was a world-weary aristocratic-criminal of some vaguely Eastern-European family (in keeping with the vaguely Victorian feelings of the time that the further you went East the more outlandish adventure there was to be had). He outwitted and outfoxed Sexton Blake, and left a trail of mayhem and murder.

These stories contained here are a tribute and a re-imagining of that character Monsieur Zenith from some very big names indeed. We have Michael Moorcock and George Mann, Paul Magrs and Mark Hodder. Look them and you’ll see that just getting shorts from these guys all under one jacket is, in my opinion at least, worth the cover price.

What follows is a collection of stories some long and some short, each of which provide a different take on the classic villain. What I love about the book is that the writers have felt able to take Monsieur Zenith in new directions and impart their own reality to him (George Mann sees some references to a particular time-travelling series of books, whilst Magrs throws the story into a reality-fiction-colliding narrative free-for-all).

Moorcock’s story is one of the longest, and doesn’t altogether satisfy as it paints the secondary derivative characters (Seaton Begg instead of Sexton Blake) into a tale of voodoo cults. However there is a sort of aptness to find Moorcock writing about world-weary albino anti-heroes…

 The story that stands out by far is the editors, Stuart Douglas’. He paints a picture of Zenith in the Seventies, wondering whether he really has lost the knack for danger and asking himself if he is a figure left behind by pace of modernity.

All in all this is a collection of stories that will amuse the uninformed, please fans of any sort of pulp-fiction, and delight those who have previously discovered the adventures of Sexton Blake..