The Cardinal and/or the Corpse: Flann O’Brien and Sexton Blake

The Cardinal and the Corpse CroppedThis is by way of being an unashamed plug, actually. I have written an essay – I was calling it an article, but my editor assures me it is an essay – which is currently called The Cardinal & the Corpse, A Flanntasy in Several Parts (although is has at least a half-a-dozen alternative names, as seemed only right), and it is, or at least started out as, an exploration of whether or not Irish writer Flann O’Brien (amongst other names – he had both more and less pseudonyms than people think) once wrote Sexton Blake stories under the pseudonym of Stephen Blakesley. This investigation itself sprang from my viewing of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit‘s brilliant, obscure, and brilliantly obscure semi-documentary The Cardinal and the Corpse, shown on Channel 4 in 1992.

Anyway, I ended up with an essay of something like twelve thousand words, which I offered to my friend and editor of Irish literary gorse, and which is now available in gorse #3, although in a necessarily edited version of about six thousand words. At some point in the nearish future, I’ll be expanding the long version quite a bit – once you start digging properly with something like this, you just never really finish, do you?

There’s is currently an extract from the essay on the gorse website (<– through that link there), and you can buy a copy of the publication in question here.

Just because we’re nice people, here’s the extract, for your reading pleasure, after which you can make your way in an orderly fashion, over to that link, all right? I’ve even added an arbitrary extra sentence to this version, just because I love you all. But I’ve also removed, almost at random, a sentence from the version as seen over there. So both versions are different, for no really very good reason. Anyway, enjoy!

The Cardinal and the Corpse: A Flanntasy in Several Parts
Pádraig Ó Méalóid

Drif CoverThe Cardinal and the Corpse, a 40-minute semi-documentary made in 1992 by Christopher Petit and Iain Sinclair for a late-night slot on Channel 4, described quite accurately by one commentator as ‘a show about books and bibliophiles in London,’ muddied the pseudonymous O’Brien waters further. When I first watched it, I had no idea what was going on in The Cardinal and the Corpse, or who most of the people in it—with the exception of Alan Moore and British science fiction writer Michael Moorcock—were. It seemed to be another story with several beginnings, several different threads running through it, none of which I had the slightest understanding of.


In the course of the action, we see husband and wife book dealers Gerry & Pat Goldstein rummaging through tables of books at one of the London markets. Pat Goldstein pulls out a handful of pulp novels, looks at them, and says that they are ‘Sexton Blakes by different writers.’


Sexton Blake worked as a consulting detective, had a sidekick called Tinker, a faithful hound called Pedro, and a bullet-proof Rolls-Royce, named The Grey Panther. He was a bit more of a physical detective than a cerebral one, though, and this may have been part of his appeal to his intended Penny Dreadful audience. Before long there were Sexton Blake stories—either stand-alone stories or serialised ones—appearing in The Half-penny Marvel, The Union Jack, and Pluck, and numerous others. Blake was hugely popular, and there have been something in the region of 4,500 stories written about him, by around two hundred writers, an awful lot of them under various pseudonyms and generic house names.

Terrell in Trouble CroppedSo, what evidence is there that Flann O’Brien wrote Sexton Blake stories? On the face of it, there appears to be lots of it, overwhelming amounts of it, actually, both from himself and others. First of all, there’s a letter he sent the then popular writer Ethel Mannin in July 1939, along with a copy of At Swim-Two-Birds. The correspondence, although brief, is in itself fascinating, with references to various side characters who may or may not have been mutual acquaintances of Flann and Mannin. Once she had read the book, though, Mannin didn’t like it, and said so, prompting the obviously thin-skinned Myles to write back to her, full of bluster, including these closing paragraphs,

It is a pity you did not like my beautiful book. As a genius, I do not expect to be readily understood but you may be surprised to know that my book is a definite milestone in literature, completely revolutionises the English novel and puts the shallow pedestrian English writers in their place. Of course I know you are prejudiced against me on account of the IRA bombings.

To be serious, I can’t quite understand your attitude to stuff like this. It is not a pale-faced sincere attempt to hold the mirror up and has nothing in the world to do with James Joyce. It is supposed to be a lot of belching, thumb-nosing and belly-laughing and I honestly believe that it is funny in parts. It is also by way of being a sneer at all the slush which has been unloaded from this country on the credulous English although they, it is true, manufacture enough of their own odious slush to make the import unnecessary. I don’t think your dictum about ‘making your meaning clear’ would be upheld in any court of law. You’ll look a long time for clear meaning in the Marx Brothers or even Karl Marx. In a key I am preparing in collaboration with Mr Kevin O’Connor, it is explained that the reader should begin on p. 145 and then start at the beginning when he reaches the end like an up-&-down straight in Poker. The fantastic title (which has brought a lot of fatuous inquiries to bird-fanciers) is explained on p. 95 and is largely the idea of my staid old-world publishers. My own title was ‘Sweeny in the Trees’. I am negotiating at present for a contract to write 6 Sexton Blake stories (25 to 30,000 words for £25 a time) so please do not send me any more sneers at my art. Sorry, Art.

Many things that would preoccupy O’Brien throughout his life are evident in that letter: his desire for literary acceptance, his preoccupation with money, his difficult relationship with James Joyce, and of course his strange obsession with Sexton Blake. O’Brien’s choice of Ethel Mannin as a possible champion of his work is certainly a strange one: her forté was mostly sentimental popular fiction with a left-leaning feminist tinge, very far from what AS2B was, and her liberal views—she had affairs with both W.B. Yeats and Bertrand Russell—hardly coincided with O’Brien’s own highly conservative Catholic worldview, or his evident misogyny.

Conclusion of the foregoing.

Just in case, here’s that link again: Gorse #3. We thank you in advance!

[The black-and-white illustration is by the excellent Jess Abbo, and is used with at least some of his permission…]

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