At my book launch yesterday, a conversation between Catherine King, who writes Victorian & Edwardian sagas, and comedy crime writer L.C. Tyler about the importance of being entertaining, reminded me of one of my Golden Age heroes, John Creasey. It's incredible that anybody could write well over 500 books and still have time for the rest of his life; it's even more amazing that many of his books were really good, especially the early police procedurals featuring Gideon of Scotland Yard.
John Creasey was born in Surrey, the son of a poor coach-maker, he was the seventh child in a family of nine. He was educated at Fulham Elementary School and Sloane School, where one of his teachers identified his creative ability and encouraged him to be a writer. He left school in 1923, when he was sixteen, and was employed in various factory , clerical and sales jobs whilst trying to become an established author. Creasey's determination to become a successful writer was quite remarkable when one realises that his working-class family laughed at his writing ambitions, and for fourteen years his submissions were unanimously rejected. He is said to have accumulated 743 rejection slips. In 1930 he received his first acceptance by the publishers Andrew Melrose and in 1932 Seven Times Seven was published. Seven Times Seven is a stand alone, romantic thriller, in which an young man, Peter Maraday, comes to the rescue of a beautiful young film star, Patricia Tremaine, when she is threatened by a criminal gang. In 1970 Creasey wrote a brief Author's Note at the beginning of the reprint of Seven Times Seven and described his delight at reading his first review in The Morning Post, which said, 'Seven Times Seven is a racy and amusing as well as up-to-date story of a gang of crooks whose operations are world wide,' it also remarked that Creasey, 'spins his yarn with speed and ingenuity.' However, he records that he soon came back down to earth and, being unemployed, had to cycle to the local Labour Exchange and 'sign on.' At the end of this Author's Note, Creasey wrote, 'Today, with thirty press-cutting books in all, and over 20,000 reviews, that first book and first review still give me the greatest of thrills.'
In the first page of Seven Times Seven, Creasey's description of Peter Maraday makes the mocking, humorous note of the book very clear, 'Peter's jaw swept round from his ears like the business edge of a scimitar and gave the final touch of masterfulness which his face needed to make him the perfect picture of a strong, silent man... He was massive, muscular and masterful, to quote his pet description of himself. From which it may be gathered he was not modest.'
When Peter becomes involved in saving Patricia Tremaine, he does not work alone; he has a group of friends, kindred spirits who style themselves the Company. In this the book has a similarity to the early Saint books.
Seven Times Seven has much in common with Creasey's first series featuring Department Z, in which Gordon Craigie and his band of young, intrepid agents guard the nation from espionage. The first Department Z novel was The Death Miser (1932) and there were 28 books in the series, which Creasey continued producing until 1957. The first Department Z books, written before the Second World War, are remarkable for their political insight, predicting the dangers of the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini before many politicians were acknowledging the problem. The books set in the Second World War are filled with the tension, fear and danger of those dark days, while the Post-War books show another threat to the Department, political pressure that their usefulness is redundant.
In 1935, three years after the publication of Seven Times Seven, Creasey felt he was sufficiently established to give up the 'day job' as a grocer's clerk and become a full time writer. At this time he also married Margaret Elizabeth Cooke and they had one son. Under his wife's name, Creasey wrote and published fourteen romantic novels, starting with For Love's Sake (1934.) Creasey married four times and had three children, one son by his first wife and two by his second.
Creasey was a remarkably prolific writer and, over his forty-year career as a published writer, wrote the incredible total of 562 full-length novels (that's over 14 a year.) He knew that it would be folly to flood the market with a new John Creasey every 27 days and so he wrote under a grand total of 28 different pseudonyms. Creasey wrote between 7,000 and 10,000 words a day and claimed that he could write a book in two weeks and still have half a day free to play cricket. He also once suggested he could be shut up in a glass box and left there to write a whole book.
In the 1930s and 1940s Creasey also wrote Westerns under the pseudonyms William K. Reilly, Tex Riley and Ken Ranger. Initially Creasey's knowledge of America came from books and films but later he visited the US and made a second home in Arizona. His third wife, Jeanne Williams, was American and wrote historical western novels.
In 1937 Creasey created a pseudonym 'by request' when Cassels asked for 'a different kind of story.' Creasey created Michael Halliday and very much enjoyed writing stand-alone novels under this name. He used the same name to launch an experimental series with his two sons as characters in the books. In America Creasey had to rename the Michael Halliday books because of a clash of names with a well known American author and the pseudonym Jeremy Yorke was born. Creasey continued to experiment and in 1966 created Dr Emmanuel Cellini, a quiet, gentle psychiatrist. The Cellini books achieved immediate success, especially in the United States.
In 1938 Creasey was living in Ashe, Hampshire, and took the name of the village for his pseudonym, Gordon Ashe, under which he wrote the Patrick Dawlish series, which featured a 'Bulldog Drummond' style character and his group of hard-hitting friends. Drawn by chance into combating crime, Patrick Dawlish and his friends fought the good fight in 35 books between 1938 and 1960, when the offer of an official position at Scotland Yard led Dawlish to another 15 adventures under the series known as the Crime Haters, which ended in the year of Creasey's death.
It is interesting to note that in physical description Patrick Dawlish is not unlike Peter Maraday of Seven Times Seven: he is a massive man with a face that would have been handsome if it had not been for his broken nose. Creasey is a master of suspense as is obvious in the opening of Death In the Trees (1954). 'Dawlish was alone in the room with the dead man. He heard no sound but his own breathing. He saw only the big white flabby face, the lock of black hair falling over the forehead, touching one big, protuberant eye. The bullet which had entered the right temple, had made little mess. In the centre of the wound was a dark dot, about it a red swelling, beneath it and dripping to the back of the chair, a tiny rivulet of blood.' By contrast, Engagement With Death (1948) opens with a light, domestic request. '”Do try to find out whether it is really true that Pop Fairweather intends to marry Georgette Lee,” Felicity wrote. “I'm fond of the old boy and I'd hate to think of him making a fool of himself.”' Creasey was always incredibly versatile.
In his early adventures, Patrick Dawlish sometimes has to act outside the law in order to serve Justice, as did the Toff, the Honourable Richard Rollinson, whose adventures start with Introducing the Toff in 1938. There were 59 books about the Toff. He is a gentleman sleuth who moves with as much ease through the Underworld as he does through Mayfair. Like Leslie Charteris' Saint, the Toff has a calling card that mirrors his nickname, a line drawing of a 'toff' wearing top hat, monocle and smoking a cigarette in a holder. However, the character most like the Saint is the Baron, a gentleman criminal along the lines of Raffles. The Baron's name is John Mannering, an antiques dealer cum cracksman. There were 37 books in the series about the Baron, starting in 1937 with Meet the Baron. In Help From the Baron (1955) he is described as: 'John Mannering, tall distinctive in a way that reminded her of her father, but as English as anyone could be. His good looks seemed to belong to an earlier age, needed a wide-brimmed cavalier's hat or the clothes of a Regency buck to set them off... His easy manner and ridiculous good looks fascinated both men and girls.'
Creasey also used his novels to highlight his political ideas and warn about dangers he saw on the horizon. This was especially true of his Dr Palfrey series. In works such as The Flood (1956) and The Famine (1967) Creasey was using his characters to warn of global threats.
Creasey had two series featuring Scotland Yard detectives. His personal favourite was Detective Inspector Roger West, a man so good-looking he was given the nickname 'Handsome West.' West was married and had two sons, to whom Creasey gave the same names as his own sons by his second marriage, Martin and Richard.
Creasey also invented his pseudonym J.J. Marric by using the first three letters of his sons' names. Marric was the name under which he wrote his series of books about Gideon of Scotland Yard. There is a story that the Gideon books were written in answer to a neighbour of Creasey, who was a police detective, and challenged Creasey to write about the police as they really were. Commander George Gideon is a towering figure both in build and in personality. Even his name is indicative. George is a solidly English name and also takes in St George, the patron saint of England who fought the dragon of evil; and Gideon is the biblical figure of great strength, a leader of the people.
In the Roger West books Creasey concentrates on one, or at most two, crimes and criminals; but the Gideon books show a panoramic view of crimes that occur across London and further afield, as Gideon dispatches his detectives to different counties to assist in investigations. The policemen are very human characters, some likeable, some irritating; some good at their job, others less efficient, and occasionally one or two are corrupt. Many of them turn up regularly in the Gideon books, such as Lemaitre, the chain smoking, incorrigibly impulsive detective who has a taste for brightly coloured bow-ties and Alec Hobbes, quiet, controlled and upper-class; both of whom at some point act as Gideon's second-in-command.
Gideon has a large family, three boys and three girls, and the memory of the child who died in infancy. At the start of the series, this loss has put a barrier between Gideon and his wife, Kate, who resents his devotion to his work and feels neglected and, above all, cannot forget that Gideon was not there when she needed him. However, they work through their problems and have a happy marriage, matured by adversity. In Gideon's Fire (1961) Kate acknowledges that Gideon's work is not just important, it is part of his very being. '”George,” Kate said quietly, “don't ever let me try to stop you from doing what you have to do.”'
The Gideon books received many accolades. In 1962 Creasey won an Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America for Gideon's Fire. In 1969 he received the MWA's greatest honour, the Grand Master Award. In 1987, H.R.F. Keating selected Gideon's Week (1956) as one of the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published.
In 1953 Creasey founded the Crime Writers' Association in an attempt to raise the profile of crime and mystery writing and gain the genre more respect.
Because of childhood polio, Creasey was not accepted for active service in the Armed Forces in World War Two, but he did receive an MBE for services in the UK's National Savings Movement in the Second World War.
Remarkably for such a prolific writer, Creasey had an active political life. He supported the Liberal Party and stood for parliament in the 1950 General Election. However he grew increasingly unhappy with Liberal Party policies, especially regarding the Suez Crisis. Later he attempted to found his own Independent Party. He had radical political ideas and advocated shared political control of nations and industrial democracy with managers, workers and investors (whether private or the State) sharing ownership and control of all industry and commerce.
Several of Creasey's books were made into films, most notably John Ford's version of Gideon's Day. Gideon also formed the basis of a television series starring John Gregson, and The Baron was also televised in a series starring Steve Forrest.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about many of Creasey's series was that his heroes had wives, bright, intelligent women who were not conveniently disposed of so that the hero could get involved with a different woman every book. Both Janet West and Kate Gideon may have issues with their husbands' devotion to crime solving but they are not planning to walk away.
Creasey has a great gift of simple, descriptive language that brings a scene to life and this is exercised to the full when describing his heroes' wives. This is clear in the description of Mannering's wife in Help From the Baron (1955): 'And Lorna, his wife, was remarkable; the kind of woman one might hope to be. It wasn't only her looks, although she was quite handsome. Her expression? She could look haughty and be aloof. It was poise, perhaps, a manner which somehow made it obvious that she was nice to know. She had the figure of a young woman, moved lithely, and had as much dress sense as Dior.'
Then there is Patrick Dawlish's adored wife, Felicity, described in Give Me Murder (1947): 'She sat by his side, with one leg resting on a footstool, for the Marine did really see to the comfort of its guests. The leg was shapely and silk-clad. She wore a soft green linen dress, trimmed with lemon-coloured silk. She was not particularly good-looking, but her face was friendly and pleasant, and her very large grey-green eyes were beautiful. Her hair was wavy and a little untidy; she looked fresh and delightful as the breeze stirred the curls at the nape of her neck.' And in A Puzzle In Pearls (1949): 'As Mrs Dawlish climbed out Roger saw her face for the first time. He had gained the impression of someone of unusual beauty. He saw now that though that was not factually true, the impression would be for him, and for most people, lasting.'
It becomes clear that Creasey is less interested in describing female beauty and is conjuring up a far more elusive quality, charm, as when Janet West is seen through her husband's eyes: 'Roger stood her away from him and studied her for a moment; his gaze moved from her dark hair, with some grey to add a touch of distinction, to her clear grey-green eyes, and to her face. Not every man would call her beautiful, but he did.' (Triumph for Inspector West, 1958.)
Last of all there is George Gideon, waiting to meet his wife: 'Then Gideon saw his Kate coming towards him, tall and upright, and for once wearing a flowered dress, red on black, not the spotless white blouse and dark skirt which had been almost a uniform for years. He'd heard much talk of this dress, but hadn't seen it before. It suited her, giving a touch of flamboyance. She was a fine-looking woman with a good figure, she walked well, and her face lit up when she saw him. That did a lot to take Gideon's mind off gloomier thoughts. They were not a demonstrative couple, but they touched hands and then fell into step.' (Gideon's Month, 1958.)
Occasionally, when reading descriptions of Kate Gideon, a slightly cynical thought intrudes that no hard-working, middle-aged housewife in the 1950s, who had borne seven children, raised six of them and known the grief of losing a child, could have worn quite so well, but that is the way Gideon sees his wife and his pride in her is a vital part of their relationship.
It is incredible that the Gideon books, with their vast cast of police personnel and local villains, were the only books in which Creasey used a timetable to remind himself of past characters and events. For all the other series, the characters were alive in his memory: 'They live in my mind... I can see them and hear them much more clearly than most people whom I know in life.'
The remarkable thing about John Creasey is not that he wrote so many books but that they are of such a high standard and they get better as they go on. Although some of the series bear a resemblance to each other, over-all they are remarkable for their different tones. It is as if Creasey became J.J. Marric or Gordon Ashe etc. and discovered each unique persona's writing voice. Although Creasey never flinched from describing evil deeds and showing the horrors of violent crime, he always made it clear that such acts were wrong and would be fought by upholders of good, such as George Gideon. He retained the integrity of his writing and never wrote overtly sexual or sadistic scenes, explaining that, 'I can't write what I don't like.'
It is admirable that most of the books originally published before 1953 were thoroughly revised before being reprinted. Creasey explained his reasons for doing this: 'The newer books should be better written than the older ones; to bring out new editions of old titles, knowing them not to be comparable with new titles, cheats not only the readers but me. Everything of mine should be as good as I can possibly make it at the time of publication.'