Tag Archives: Blackmail

Katie on Thin Ice [1977]

Sample Images

Katie on Thin Ice 1

Katie on Thin Ice 2

Katie on Thin Ice 3

Published: Tammy 8 January 1977 – 9 April 1977

Episodes: 14

Artist: John Armstrong

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: None known

Plot

It is winter 1815 and it’s so cold the Thames has frozen. Katie Williams comes to the Port of London to greet her father, who is returning from the Napoleonic Wars. But bad news awaits her: Dad perished in the wars and now she’s an orphan. He has left a couple of things for Katie: a pair of ice skates and a bag of money.

The money bag is promptly snatched by a thief named Annie. Katie manages to catch up to Annie and demand her bag back. Then a cold-looking woman named Mrs Winter appears, saying she is a benefactor for Napoleonic war orphans and apologises for Annie. She offers to take Annie into her home for war orphans. The home looks respectable enough, but Katie senses something is strange about it.

Next day Katie tries out her skates on the frozen Thames and sees an angry mob chasing Susie, a girl from the orphanage. Katie helps Susie by leading them off, but then finds out too late why they were chasing her: she had stolen a necklace. Mrs Winter is now revealed to be a female Fagin type and she runs her orphanage as a den of thieves and pickpockets. As nobody will believe Katie was duped into helping Susie, Mrs Winter has snared Katie, blackmails her into crime, and says those skates and the frozen Thames will be the perfect getaway every time Katie steals.

Annie, Katie soon learns, is the most vicious of the thieves. She is also jealous of Katie because Katie has usurped her position as favourite after saving Mrs Winter’s life. Katie suspects Annie tried to kill her when a lamp warning of a hole in the ice got moved and she spots candle grease on Annie’s hand later on.

Katie is forced to go along with the racket; for the most part just watch helplessly and provide diversions on the ice while the thieves make their getaway. But she does not downright steal anything and is determined to find a way to stop it. In one attempted thieving she is pleased to mess up and go back empty handed, even though it means a beating. In another attempted raid she saves a girl’s life when Annie attempts to send her sliding to her doom over the edge. The girl is Claire Stern, ironically the daughter of a magistrate. The magistrate wants Katie to give Claire ice-skating lessons. Anxious to keep up her façade of respectability, Mrs Winter agrees.

The lessons start well, but Katie can see Annie following and out to rob the Sterns. She pulls a fast one on Annie when she tries it, which gets Annie a beating, but now Annie’s really out to get her.

Mrs Winter has the gang attempt to raid the ships, but it goes wrong and Susie is arrested. Katie manages to rescue Susie, but now Susie is seriously ill. And Mrs Winter says Katie must steal the money needed for Susie’s treatment – and stealing had been something Katie had been trying to avoid with Mrs Winter. Eventually Katie smashes an apothecary’s window to grab some medicine, but leaves money to pay it. When Miss Winter finds out, she beats Katie for not stealing.

By this time Katie has become known to the police as “the ice thief” and they are on the lookout for her. They almost nab her with a net as she makes her way back from the apothecary, but an amazing leap to grab an ice shard to rip her way through the net saves her.

But Inspector Hawkfinch, who has seen Katie skate as both the ice thief and Claire’s skating teacher, suspects her, and Katie knows it. At Claire’s next lesson he tries to trick Katie into replicating the leap, but she is too sore from the beating to do it. So it looks like suspicion is allayed. But now Katie has another problem: Claire says she is going to use her skating lessons to help the police catch the ice thief!

Claire is getting ready to set her trap on the Thames, but her speed skating is still not up to the ice thief’s and needs more coaching there. That night Mrs Winter forces Katie to go help stealing at a warehouse, saying they will kill Susie if she doesn’t. Katie warns them the police are on the lookout, and they say they will provide the decoys while Katie gets away on the ice. But Claire spots her and, as Katie is still weakened from the beating, Claire could well catch her. Katie uses a stolen tapestry like a sail to make her getaway.

But when Claire tells Mrs Winter she almost caught the ice thief, it puts Claire in danger from Mrs Winter. Katie tries to protect Claire by offering to steal Claire’s skates. But she fails, and she soon discovers Mrs Winter has set Annie onto Claire. Annie tries to set a coach toppling on top of Claire, and Katie saves her. Next, Annie tries to burn down Claire’s house, with her and Katie in it. Again, Katie’s quick action saves the day. Her own skates get damaged, though.

London is going to have an ice fair on the Thames, which means more pickings for Mrs Winter. At the fair they meet up with Claire, who says her skates got destroyed in the fire. It looks like Claire is now safe from Mrs Winter. But Susie is still sick and they are using her as a hold over Katie. Katie decides it’s time to make a break for it, with Susie. After tying up Annie, Katie tries to get away Susie away on a sledge on the Thames, but Claire catches her, revealing she managed to get her skates fixed. And Katie’s damaged skates left a trail from her house to Mrs Winter’s.

Claire now realises Katie is the ice thief, but thinks it’s Katie’s own operation. Katie tries to tell Claire it is Mrs Winter who is behind everything, but Claire does not listen. People think she’s a respectable woman and benefactor of war orphans. Katie and Susie are turned over to Mrs Winter, who locks them in the icehouse. Katie manages to get them out of the icehouse – and lock Mrs Winter’s crony Ena in the icehouse.

Katie discovers that Mrs Winter is planning to send the whole ice fair under the river by spreading salt on the ice. This is because there are people there, including Claire, her father, and her own pickpockets, who know or suspect too much. Katie meets up with Claire and her father and tries to tell them about Mrs Winter, and that she was forced into crime. They still don’t listen – until they see Mrs Winter’s charges at work for themselves and they finally suspect her. Then the salt takes effect, breaking up the ice. Katie and Claire go the rescue of many trapped people, including the pickpockets, on the ice. Everyone is pulled clear of the ice, and Katie and Claire have to sacrifice their own skates so they will be saved too.

Across the ice, Mrs Winter fumes at failing to kill them. Annie overhears her and, realising she was also intended to be a victim, takes revenge by throwing her cutpurse knife at the bag of salt at Mrs Winter’s feet. This breaks up the ice under Mrs Winter and sends her to her death in the icy waters of the Thames. Annie then clears out to find warmer and greener pastures for her pickpocketing.

Claire’s father promises the orphans he will arrange a better life for them.

Thoughts

Tammy’s choice of artist must have caught her readers by surprise. John Armstrong didn’t usually draw a period serial (though he did plenty of period stories for the Strange Stories). Or a skating serial for that matter, despite his aptitude for sports stories. By this time Armstrong was known more in Tammy for his Bella stories and only older readers would remember he once drew Tammy stories that had nothing to do with Bella. But when we view this story, we wonder why the hell he wasn’t given more of a chance to do more of such stories.

The story formula itself is one we see more often in the DCT titles, such as “The Courage of Honor Bright” (Mandy). An orphaned girl discovers too late she has fallen foul of a racket in the Fagin vein, but she refuses to become part of it. She is the one oasis of honesty and courage against a racket that has destroyed honest principles in the other waifs, whether by offerings of a good home, intimidation, abuse, or taking advantage of worse-natured children. She fights all the pressures to turn her into one of the criminal gang and desperately tries to find a way to escape and bring down the racket. The Fagin villain rues the day he or she ever ensnared this girl in the operation. It is unusual to see the formula in Tammy though, which makes the story even more of a surprise.

Mrs Winter comes from a long tradition of sinister villainesses who pass themselves off as respectable benefactors in girls’ comics. In reality, it’s a front for their criminal operation and maintaining a façade of respectability to the outside world. In this case, it’s entrapping orphans from the Napoleonic Wars and turning them into pickpockets to line her pockets. At first glance the home looks fine and the orphans well cared for. There are no hints of the child abuse that helps to maintain Mrs Winter’s hold over the orphans or the punishments (beatings, the ice house, threatening to expose a sick girl to the cold until she dies) for those who refuse to steal. Yet even before the protagonist realises the façade there are warning signs about Mrs Winter. She does look like a creepy, cold crone. Even her name is a warning and ties in with the running theme of cold and ice.

The ice-skating itself is also unusual in that it’s not being done for competitions or battling to keep up the skating against obstacles, as in most skating serials. Instead, the skating is the vehicle that both entraps the protagonist and provides her means of hope and escape against the nightmare she has fallen into. It’s beautifully drawn against the backdrop of the frozen Thames and the life and culture that used to develop on the Thames when it froze over. Those days must be bygone ones now in an age of global warming.

The theme of Katie running on thin ice runs throughout the story. The ice grows increasingly thinner in a metaphoric sense as Katie struggles to keep ahead of the tightening grip of the law before she can prove herself and find a way to escape the racket she has fallen into. The skating is both entrapping and assisting Katie, and we have to wonder which will get her first. When Claire wants to use her skating lessons to help catch the ice thief, Katie well and truly is caught in her forced double life and the thin ice is reaching breaking point.

Finally, the ice breaks up altogether – literally. It was only a matter of time. After all, spring will come and melt the ice on the Thames, which would put an end to the “ice thief”. But it’s Katie’s nemesis Mrs Winter who falls under it, not Katie. The only reasons Katie herself does not fall under any ice despite all the close calls are quick wits, quick reflexes, and smart moves on the ice.

The demise of Mrs Winter, cold-hearted and frosty in every sense of the word, is a shocking yet fitting one. It’s poetic justice – dying by the very means she used to try to kill everyone at the ice fair and it ties in with the thin ice thread. “You’re the one on thin ice now!” Annie mocks. We just love it. It gives us more satisfaction than Mrs Winter simply being arrested. But who would know the wanted Mrs Winter has died except Annie? Perhaps her body will be fished out of the river and they will assume she fell foul of her own scheme.

We still hope the long arm of the law will catch up to Annie eventually. After all, she is a very vicious criminal and a dangerous person, and she has a lot to answer for. Despite the period setting she belongs to the John Armstrong tradition of evil tough girls drawn like Norma Sykes from Misty’s “Moonchild“.

No Medals for Marie [1981]

Sample Images

Marie 1Marie 2Marie 3Marie 4

Published: Jinty 3 January 1981 to 21 March 1981

Episodes: 12

Artist: Phil Gascoine

Writer: Alison Christie

Translations/reprints: Girl Picture Library #17 as “Winner-Loser!”

Plot
Marie Smart has always been a brilliant girl who excels at everything and wins at everything she goes for. This is one bright spot in the lives of her parents, who don’t make much money at the jobs they have. Worse, they constantly worry about their son Paul, who is seriously ill with asthma, and the polluted industrial town they live in makes it progressively worse. Paul’s health is deteriorating so badly that they badly need to move to the countryside. The trouble is, the parents can’t afford it.

Marie wins a scholarship, and it means everything to her parents for her to fill her sideboard with medals and trophies; Dad is even working overtime and risking his own health because of it so he can afford Marie’s new school. Marie understands this and resolves to fulfil their wish to fill that sideboard with medals.

But then Marie’s godmother, Miss Simon, invites her to her country home. Dad has misgivings because Miss Simon is an “eccentric old bat” who might put “strange ideas” into Marie’s head. Mum persuades him otherwise, but it turns out his fears were more than justified. Miss Simon has never won any medals in her life, and her jealousy over it is so twisted that she resolves the person to inherit her hall won’t win any either. She wants Marie’s family to inherit the hall when Marie turns 16 – but on strict condition that Marie wins no medals in the interim. And not a word to her parents about it. Marie agrees to the perverse terms because this is the only way her sick brother can move to the countryside.

So Marie starts deliberately failing things that have a medal or trophy attached. Her family is disappointed to see the sideboard not filling up with medals, but Marie has been forced to agree not to tell them why. Sometimes Marie has to resort to lengths that get her into real trouble in order to avoid winning medals, including vandalism and embarrassing her family with a lousy performance at the school pantomime. Twice Marie’s life is even put in danger because of her deliberate failures at medals.

Soon there is another problem – it will be two years before Marie is 16, and Paul is getting so sick that he could die well before that time arrives. So Marie takes the plunge and asks Miss Simon if she can have the hall when she turns 15 instead. At first Miss Simon refuses because she doesn’t understand or care about the seriousness of Paul’s condition, dismissing it as “a tickle in his chest”. She changes her mind – somewhat – when a fire in her room gives her a taste of not being able to breathe, just as Paul can’t during his asthma attacks. She agrees to let Marie have the hall when she turns 15.

But Miss Simon’s new-found sympathy for Paul is not enough to turn her around. She does not let up on Marie either although Marie helped to save her from the fire. She remains jealous because she has no medals herself and still insists Marie win no medals. When she mistakenly thinks Marie has won one, she refuses to hand over the hall to her, regardless of how much Paul’s life depends on it. Fortunately Marie manages to convince Miss Simon that she jumped to the wrong conclusion there. The trouble is, it will be some months before Marie is 15, and time is fast running out for Paul; the parents now fear for his life.

Towards the end of the school year the Smarts organise a holiday that will get some country air into Paul. But then both the parents lose their jobs and can’t afford the holiday. So a cheaper holiday is organised at Simon Hall. But finally, Marie cannot help herself from winning a medal. When the jealous Miss Simon hears, she refuses to hand over the hall, calls off the holiday, and leaves Paul to slowly die in the smoky town.

The family manage to organise a car so they can at least get some country holiday. However, a breakdown drives the Smarts to Simon Hall, where Marie decides to confront the jealous old bag once and for all. To her surprise she finds Miss Simon has had a change of heart because she has finally won a medal and now realises how horrible she had been. So Miss Simon hands the hall immediately over to the Smarts, with a job to go with it for Mr Smart. The family are thrilled, as it is the answer to their prayer. The move from the air-polluted town to the countryside of Simon Hall soon has Paul’s health going from strength to strength and his asthma fades.

Miss Simon now goes from stopping Marie from winning medals to challenging her as to which of them can fill their sideboards with medals the fastest. No medals for guessing who is soon in the lead.

Thoughts

IPC girls’ titles delved into the blackmail theme far less often than the DCT titles, who used it so frequently. Jinty herself hardly ever used it, and this is one of the exceptions. Objects of blackmail have included jobs, incriminating diaries, and family reputations. The health or even the life of a loved one being held hostage has been used too.

However, Miss Simon is unusual in that she did not start using Paul’s ill-health as a blackmail ploy to begin with as most blackmailers in girls’ comics would have. In fact, it sounds like she did not even know about it until Marie pleads for the hall a year early because of Paul’s deteriorating condition. So at the beginning she hardly had any leverage to seriously get Marie to agree to her no-medal condition, and Marie would have most likely to tell her to sod off. So how she could have seriously believed she would get Marie to agree is difficult to understand and does create a plot weakness. Perhaps it’s that eccentricity Dad was on about. Eccentrics are not known for common sense.

Miss Simon is also unusual is that she is not lying about guaranteeing the saving of the sick relative in return for agreeing to the blackmail. This usually is the case as shown in DCT titles like “Meg and the Magic Robot” (Tracy) and “April Fool” (Mandy). The blackmailer leads the protagonist to believe that they will do their bit to save the sick relative in exchange for the protagonist agreeing to their demands, but eventually the protagonist finds out the blackmailer was lying and not doing anything of the sort. But this is not the case with Miss Simon. In fact, it’s not really her idea to hold Paul’s life hostage in the first place.

This is one of the redeeming qualities about Miss Simon, who already comes across as a despicable character with her twisted jealousy and later, her callousness in leaving Paul to slowly die in the polluted town, just because Marie had won a medal. Her callousness is even more disgusting because she does understand and sympathise with his plight once she gets a taste of not being able to breathe, yet she is still willing to leave him to just slowly die if Marie wins a medal. We’re not really sure Miss Simon even deserves to win a medal because of her petty conduct, which not even eccentricity can excuse. All the same, Miss Simon winning a medal is the only way to make her see sense and resolve the story.

Miss Simon truly redeems herself in handing over the hall immediately once she stops being jealous over medals, instead of waiting until Marie is 15. No doubt it was prompted by guilt over the way she behaved and how she treated Paul (leaving him to his fate) who had, ironically, always liked her.

Marie Smart arouses our sympathies far more than a victim in a regular blackmail story usually does. For one thing, she is a sympathetic character from the start in that she has never let her brilliance go to her head and make her conceited like Tina Williams in “The Girl Who Never Was”. We really laud her for that, and for the way she puts her sick brother ahead of herself. Marie does not grieve over the failures she forces herself to do; instead her heart bleeds over how it is disappointing and even shaming her family. She knows how much it means to them, especially how Dad is working overtime to pay for her new school and expects medals in return. Dad going through a heart attack must be attributed to his overtime and his deep disappointment at no medals on Marie’s sideboard. Marie decides to at least come out top in mid-year exams to please him and inject him with encouragement to recover, and it’s a real tonic for him. But that’s all she can do; there are to be none of the medals he really wants because of Miss Simon.

Our hearts bleed for the parents as well. They are already under a lot of stress and worry because of Paul’s condition. The only remedy – move to a cleaner environment – is unaffordable for them and they watch in anguish as Paul’s health deteriorates in the polluted town. Marie winning medals is one of the few things to give them joy, but now they are deprived of that because of Miss Simon’s pettishness. Their constant disappointment compounds the anxiety they are already under, and it’s so unfair to them. Then they sink even lower in losing their jobs and Dad’s health not fully recovering from his heart attack.

And then final anguish – being denied the hall and watching Paul slowly die because of her medal, is the most heart breaking of all for Marie. Even the parents and Paul, who don’t know about the situation, are devastated at Miss Simon cancelling the holiday.

It’s no wonder that Jinty advertised this story as “nail-biting”. It is not one of Jinty’s most distinguished or memorable stories, but as with so many Alison Christie stories, emotion is still its strength.