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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