The Durable Desperadoes by William Vivian Butler
William Vivian Butler’s classic account of what I call “Rogue Literature” has always been a great favourite of mine, and I’ve just enjoyed a re-read.
The Durable Desperadoes are those rascals of crime and thriller literature who operate on both sides of the law, though always with an innate sense of justice – often standing up for the weak and vulnerable, righting wrongs, and persecuting the powerful who prey on the dispossessed, i.e. other crooks without such a moral compass.
Think of Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar-the Saint, John Creasey’s John Mannering, alias the Baron, Bruce and Roderick Graeme’s Blackshirt and you are in the right literary territory.
Those are probably the best and most remembered examples, though William Vivian Butler draws his net wider, right back to E.W. Hornung’s Raffles, Edgar Wallace’s “Four Just Men”, Sexton Blake, and Sapper’s politically dubious Bulldog Drummond.
Interestingly, the best examples had the heyday in the 1920s and 30s, those two increasingly frenetic decades between the two World Wars, when society seemed to welcome heroes who went slightly off the rails.
This book is also a scintillating account about how writers prospered and became famous, starting out almost as penny a line authors for magazines such as Thriller, before finding fame, glory and bestseller status across the world.
Leslie Charteris dropped out of Cambridge and created several characters before getting the Saint just right – though, as Mr Butler shows – his character Simon Templar evolved as the decades went on. Personally, I like the earliest Saint adventures best of all, when he was more a devil-may-care though charming villain, who occasionally kills greater villains who have crossed the line.
Although the public loved the Saint from the very beginning, Mr Butler shows how Charteris struggled financially until he took himself and his creation to America. The Saint became a phenomenon, resulting in several Hollywood movies and a much-loved television series.
But perhaps the best example, dealt with at some length in this book, is the writer John Creasey, creator of the Toff and the Baron, as well as numerous other characters. Creasey was a writing phenomenon who would often pen a couple of full-length novels in a week.
Yes, in a week.
In the year 1937 alone, he produced some 27 novels, not just crime and detective stories but romances, juvenile fiction, westerns, action novels and… it’s hard to believe. I’ve recently re-read some of the novels featuring the Baron. There are no signs whatsoever of this pace of writing. Creasey was such a master of his craft. The characters are richly-drawn, the plotting superb, the writing standard excellent.
Despite already having created the Toff, Creasey was on the dole in the 1930s when he wrote the first Baron story “Meet the Baron”. He was working as a temporary Christmas postman, and had written the first 5000 words in the hope of entering the story in a competition to ‘find a new Raffles’.
He forgot about it. Only on Christmas Day did he remember that the deadline was just six days away. So he sat down and wrote the remaining 75,000 words in that time and won the competition.
For those of us who struggle to get up to a couple of thousand words of fiction in a day it’s almost unbelievable. And Creasey maintained this pace for much of his writing career, even though his bestseller status removed the financial need to do so.
There are other heroes featured at some length in Mr Butler’s book, though they have sadly gone out of fashion. There is Blackshirt, (nothing to do with the British Union of Fascists) created by literary agent Bruce Graeme, a cracksman very much in the Raffles tradition. When Bruce Graeme retired from penning his yarns, his son Roderick took over giving the character a post-war new lease of life.
There is Norman Conquest, the creation of Berkeley Gray (Edwy Searles Brooks), slightly in the Saint tradition, known to his pals, obviously, as 1066.
Mr Butler shows how these creations led up a certain Mr James Bond.
“The Durable Desperadoes” is a wonderfully readable and inspiring book, especially for those of us trying to create Desperadoes of our own, every page filled with humour and sympathy.
A terrific introduction to this engaging sub-genre of the crime thriller novel. Sadly, “The Durable Desperadoes” is out of print, though copies are available through online retailers. It would be wonderful if some enterprising publisher made it available once more.
Click on the link below to find a copy…