Boston Blackie

April 26, 2011 at 7:46 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

It’s probably unfair of me to call Jack Boyle forgotten.  Certainly, a simple Google search of “Boston Blackie” will turn up references to him, and there are snippets of info about his life buried in documents scattered across the Internet.  But virtually all of that material is DEEPLY buried, and Boyle’s name is scarcely a fraction as recognizable to the general public as that of his most enduring creation.

Not that Boston Blackie is a household name these days either.  Still, unlike his creator, Blackie has managed to maintain a toehold in the  consciousness of the American public.  He is mentioned in songs like The Coasters’ Searchin’ and (more recently) Jimmy Buffet’s Pencil Thin
Moustache.  And, of course, his adventures are fondly remembered by a great many fans of old-time radio and b-movie mysteries.

For the uninitiated among us, Boston Blackie is a hero on the wrong side of the law.  In his best-remembered incarnations (the movies, radio, and tv
series of the 1940s-50s), he is a reformed thief with a heart of gold, usually at odds with the police because of his criminal past.  However, this characterization is a far cry from the initial concept first presented in Jack Boyle’s earliest stories.  While his Blackie definitely possesses the benevolent streak which helped endear him to audiences for decades, he initially appears as a hardened criminal and opium addict.  Later tales wean him of his drug dependence, and move Blackie closer and closer to the reformed status he enjoys in later decades.  Regardless of which version of the character you prefer, Boston Blackie always makes for ripping good entertainment, and his creation was a defining moment in Jack Boyle’s life.

Of course, I was scarcely aware of most of this the day I unwittingly took my first tentative steps down the trail of Blackie and Boyle.  The afternoon I returned that reprint of BOSTON BLACKIE to the public library, and followed a whim to dig up Boyle’s earliest tales from THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE, I had no intention of embarking on a decades-long research project.  I just wanted to read a few more stories, and maybe find out a
little bit more about their author.  There was something magical about handling those crumbling magazines from 1914 though – almost intoxicating –
and the original illustrations by N.C. Wyeth alone were stunning enough to justify pulling the aged periodicals from the depths of the library’s
archives.  The autobiographical sketch published with these earliest Blackie tales was not credited to Jack Boyle, but appeared under the byline No. 6606 (Boyle’s convict number in the penitentiary where he was incarcerated).  With his identity obscured in this manner, the sketch provided little in the way of specific data about the author, instead relating anecdotes primarily related to his addiction to opium and his fall from grace as a journalist. So, while fascinating reading, the piece gave only vague clues to Boyle’s early life.

But what clues they were!  They spoke of a successful professional brought to ruin, the pursuit of a fugitive from justice, armed robbery, corruption in law enforcement, and an insider’s view of the criminal underworld. In many ways, Boyle himself was beginning to sound even more intriguing than
the fictional characters he wrote about.  Surely there was more I could ferret out about this man.  How could he have gone from success to disgrace to extreme success and then obscurity?  My intrigue was deepening.  So, putting aside those issues of THE AMERICAN, I began contemplating how I
could go about finding out more …

JBF 4/26/11

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It Began Innocently Enough …

April 13, 2011 at 8:01 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In many ways, this whole thing started for me with a man named Doyle, not Boyle.

Back in the mid-1990s, I was a fresh-faced kid, a few years out of college and recently married, working in the records division of a downtown law firm.  Mr. Doyle was a gentleman also in the firm’s employ, who knew of my enthusiasm for all things nostalgic, vintage radio drama in particular.  One afternoon he gave me a box of cassette tapes he had purchased some years earlier, a sampler of programs from radio’s golden era.  Among the recordings were several episodes of BOSTON BLACKIE starring Dick Kolmar.  I had never heard BOSTON BLACKIE before, but recalled the title as one of a handful of shows that my parents had mentioned over the years as being among their families’ weekly entertainments.  Something about the title, and the fact that my folks had listened to the series long ago, sparked my interest, and I listened to those tapes first.

I can’t honestly say that the production held me riveted, but the shows were a pleasant afternoon’s diversion, and a reminder that I had once read that the BOSTON BLACKIE radio series had its basis in an older literary character.  At the time, I was an avid reader of early twentieth century crime fiction, so on a whim I looked up Boston Blackie at my local public library.  To my delight, they held a reprint of the sole volume published about the character way back in 1919.  I devoured the collection in a matter of days, thoroughly enjoying my first taste of the “real” Boston Blackie as originally conceived by his creator.  But who was this Jack Boyle, who had created such an amiable rogue as Blackie?

Fortunately for me, the reprint which I held contained an excellent introduction by mystery writer Edward D. Hoch detailing background on the author and his notorious brainchild.  However, I soon learned that precious little was known about Jack Boyle.  A former newspaper man, corrupted by drug addiction, Boyle had written his earliest tales of Boston Blackie from a prison cell.  They became popular with the reading public, and upon his release from incarceration a few years later, Boyle went on to a successful writing career with Blackie at its foundation.  Movies were made about Blackie as early as 1918, and continued to be made well into the 1940s.  His exploits were later successfully adapted to both radio and television, and mentions of him have even made their way into a few popular songs over the years.  But despite Blackie’s longevity, after the mid-1920s Jack Boyle seems to have just faded away.  Given the success of his work, how could this happen?

The day I went to return the book, I spotted a passage in its introduction which had previously escaped my notice.  Ed Hoch commented that the earliest Blackie stories, published in THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE along with an autobiographical essay composed by Boyle to introduce the series, were not included in the 1919 book.  So there was more information available out there!  Issues of THE AMERICAN from the 1910s are pretty scarce, and the odds of my library holding copies were overwhelmingly slim, but I decided to check just on the off chance.  To my astonishment, our collection held precisely the issues I needed, and I scurried excitedly to the Periodicals Desk anticipating the intriguing new info I could be on the verge of unearthing …

So, with his random gift, Mr. Doyle unwittingly unleashed my curiosity, setting me on a collision course with Jack Boyle and his shady world of letters and lawlessness.  But at that point, I had no hint where my new-found interest was leading me …

JBF 4/13/11

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In Search of Who?

April 13, 2011 at 2:19 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

How can a man be so overshadowed by his own creation that his name is all but forgotten today, even though his character lives on?  That’s the question that first drew me into this crazy project.  Little did I know that my curiosity would lead me down a path that would consume two decades of my life, and encompass elements of drug addiction, family tragedy, Hollywood glamour, natural disaster, suicide, investigative journalism, wild animal training, identity theft, and even multiple murder.  All the makings of a good noir thriller (and then some)!  For all his present obscurity, Jack Boyle certainly was a memorable guy.

Had I known then what I know now, would I have delved so deeply to resurrect his memory?  Should I have?

Oh well, the book is still some years away (2014, by my publisher’s estimate), so the world still has a bit of time before meeting the ubiquitous Mr. Boyle again.  Perhaps it will help me, in the meantime, to write about my obsession here – to tell the story of my ill advised quest to “find” the man who created Boston Blackie …

JBF 4/12/11

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