Keywords: Cult, Fiction, Pulp, Crime

Title: Monsieur Zenith the Albino

Author/Artist: Anthony Skene

Publisher: Savoy Books

Media: Book

Reviewer: James Marriott

This is the second in Savoy's series of classic reprints, and while it isn't as essential a publication as the first, The Exploits of Engelbrecht, it's still well worth a look. Skene was a pulp writer working principally with 'the sleuth of the second-rate', Sexton Blake, from 1916 to 1948. Zenith was conceived originally as one of Blake's more colourful villains, jockeying for position with 'reincarnated High Priests of Ancient Egypt' and 'avenging toffs', and became from his first appearance one of the most popular adversaries in the Blake universe. Readers just couldn't get enough of the albino's deathly pallor, immaculate grooming and death-defying opium habit, and Skene wrote almost sixty novellas along with fifteen full-length novels featuring the dapper yet freakish master criminal. Here Zenith appears without Blake, and is pitted instead against examples of the more crassly criminal element, as well as two typically hapless policemen.

Notwithstanding Sexton Blake's reputation as 'the office boy's Sherlock Holmes', Monsieur Zenith has more than a little of Conan Doyle's creation himself, being, as already mentioned, a prodigious user of opiates, a master of disguise and a virtuoso violinist. Although Zenith operates on the wrong side of the law, he is morally on the side of justice, for all his amoral posturing: when a lady's welfare is at stake Zenith knows just what to do.

Despite Skene's punchy, highly readable style, this isn't a forgotten masterpiece; but as a criticism this misses the point. Zenith is a character delirious enough to deserve to live on - equal parts Holmes, Fantomas and Diabolik, as well as having been a formative influence on Moorcock's Elric - and Savoy's presentation here makes the volume nothing less than a paean to weird pulp in all its crazed glory. Not only is the original text incredibly obscure - the publishers are aware of only three extant copies - but Savoy have also included original Zenith illustrations, including a number of covers from the likes of Detective Weekly and Union Jack, as well as new illustrations from Savoy stalwarts Kris Guidio and John Coulthart, an exhaustively researched foreword by Jack Adrian and a fascinating reminiscence on the contemporary pulp scene by Moorcock. This is about as far as it gets from cynical hack publishing - but then Savoy sets higher standards than most. Recommended.


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