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Thursday, January 07, 2010

R. B. Saxe

(* I'm reposting this as, following the original posting on 20 September 2009, I had a very informative note from a relative of Saxe. However, rather than rewrite the whole thing, I've added some details as a postscript.)

R. B. Saxe has been a name I've stumbled over a number of times in the past twenty-whatever years as a writer of comic strips and crime novels. I've struggled to find out anything about him, even a first name... until now.

Saxe had a very odd CV. He was a musician and songwriter from at least as early as 1916 and, presumably, played with bands during the teens and twenties, although the only mention I have been able to discover is that he was a drummer with Gerry Moore, a jazz pianist, who had a residency at the Trident Club, London, in 1928.

He was writing short stories as early as 1929 when "The Democracy of Love" appeared in the Daily Mail. However, he disappears from sight in the 1930s, apart from the co-writing, with Laurence Huntington, of an unproduced screenplay entitled Romance in Rhythm in 1933.

In 1940, the first of a series of novels, written in a hard-boiled American style that seems to me to be deliberately over the top and meant to be comical. Three novels appeared during the Second World War featuring amateur detective John Dobbs, also known as The Ghost. They were briefly popular, and one of the books was even translated into French for the Serie Noir series as Le fantôme sait nager (1954). The first novel, The Ghost Knows His Greengages, was described by one reviewer as "enormous fun; it lies largely in the transposition of Chicago gangsterism into the purer air of Belgravia; written in a slang which is fresh and very lively, and, what is more, immediately understandable.... It is very funny, very violent... a piece of high-spirited nonsense."

Saxe's last novel, also crime, was What Can You Lose?, published in 1947 and described as "another piece of light reading with a Hollywood background." He briefly disappears again until 1952 when he is suddenly credited with a series of biographical comic strips published on the back page of Eagle, all drawn by Norman Williams. Saxe then disappeared suddenly in 1953, with two strips appearing in that year's Eagle and Girl annuals. However, a lengthy search of death records turned up nobody by the name R. B. Saxe. It was a similar story for birth records.

I've returned to Saxe many times over the years, finding a brief mention here, a song title there. Today I struck lucky with an entry in the London Gazette which followed Saxe's death (it is likely that he did not leave a will, so a notice had to be posted informing people of his death giving people with a claim the chance to get in touch with the company handling his estate).

The notice revealed that R. B. Saxe was pseudonym of Francis John Dickson. Er... no, I've never heard of him either.

So after years of digging around, the man behind R. B. Saxe is finally revealed. I have to admit, it has been a bit of an anti-climax. All I've been able to find out about him was that Dickson was born in Camberwell in 1888; he was living at 10 Dryden Street, London W.C.2 and working as a commercial traveller at the time of his death on 6 February 1953, aged 64.

Update: 6 January 2010

I'm pleased to say that my original post was spotted by David Jones, grandson of Francis Dickson. Although David was only three years old when his grandfather died, he was able to fill in some fascinating family history: "He came from a theatrical background," says David. "His father, Jimmy Dickson (actually James Bernard) wrote music hall material for Fred Williams and Harry Randall (e.g. Little Teddy Brown Down at Margit). Jimmy's day job was a salesman for a paper company. Francis's brother, James Augustine, was an actor, mostly in pantomime under the name Charles Cardiff. In later life, Francis adopted a third forename, Aloysius. I have no idea where these names came from...

"Francis's daughter, my mother, was a musician, playing the piano in London department store bands before the war (Whiteleys in Bayswater, for instance). She also had a brief spell as a drummer at the Kit Kat club in the Haymarket."

Francis John Dickson died of lung cancer (he smoked like a chimney, says David). During the First World War he was a balloon-based observer in France. His father was James Bernard Dickson (b. Newington, 1860) who was married to Mary Josephine Ross (b. Ireland, c.1860) in 1884.

The photograph at the top of the column is from the dust jacket of the French edition of The Ghost Knows His Greengages.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels (series: John Dobbs [The Ghost])
The Ghost Knows His Greengages (Dobbs). London, Constable, Dec 1940.
A Ghost Does a Richard III (Dobbs). London, John Long, Mar 1943.
The Ghost Pulls the Jackpot (Dobbs). London, John Long, Feb 1945.
What Can You Lose?. London, John Long, Nov 1947.

Short Stories
The Democracy of Love (Daily Mail, 24 September 1929)
The Reunion of Snake-Face (Illustrated London News, Xmas 1941)
'Remember Me?' (Evening Standard, 15 Nov 1947)

Songs
The Ghost of the Stilton Cheese, with Harry Stafford. London, Francis, Day & Hunter, c.1916.
What Are Little Girls Made Of, with Harry Stafford. 1920.
Strait-laced Jane, with Donovan Meher. 1923.
Everybody Slips a Little, with Donovan Meher. Toronto, Leo Feist, 1923.
A Rose in a Garden of Weeds, with Hubert W. David. 1926 (performed by Billy Cotton and later featured in the soundtrack to It's a Wonderful Life with James Stewart).
It’s Too Late Now, with G. Silver. 1927.
Oh, My Darling Clementine. 1927.
Take a Letter, Maria, with Hubert W. David. [date unknown]

Comic Strips
Louis the Fearless (biographical strip, Eagle, 4 Jan-27 Jun 1952, art by Norman Williams)
Deep Sea Doctor (biographical strip, Eagle, 4 Jul-19 Dec 1952, art by Norman Williams)
Man of Courage (biographical strip, Eagle, 24 Dec 1952-3 Jul 1953, art by Norman Williams)
Wenceleas the Good (biographical strip, Eagle Annual 3, Sep 1953, art by Norman Williams)
Elizabeth Fry (biographical strip, Girl Annual 2, Sep 1953, art by Edgar Ainsworth)

(* "Deep Sea Doctor" artwork by Norman Williams © Dan Dare Corporation. Many thanks to David Jones for the additional information and a scan of the photo.)

2 comments:

jon.berry said...

Fascinating. I bought a weathered copy of 'The Ghost knows his Greengages' at a jumble sale in 1957 and lost it some time in my teens, since when I have never seen any reference either to the novel or its author. I have today tracked down a copy on Amazon and ordered it. It remains to be seen if I find it as funny as I did when I was thirteen. Thanks a bunch anyhow.

Anonymous said...

thank you so much for this my grandfather has been gone 15 years and used to sing me a rose in a garden of weeds..never knew where it came from. I now sing it to my children and they know all the words by heart, would love to hear an original recording of it.