John Creasey was a writing phenomenon, one of the most prolific authors of all time, with at least 700 titles published. Creasey was not only prolific, he was fast. He could write two or three full-length novels in a week. To read them, you would never know that they were written at speed. They are quality examples of crime fiction.
Although, Creasey is best known as a crime writer, he also wrote romances, westerns, thrillers – the cross-genre list goes on. As a crime writer, Creasey is up there with the best. Think of his creations; The Baron, The Toff, Gideon of the Yard, Inspector West, the Department Z novels – the list goes on and on.
When I was younger I used to see dozens of Creasey titles on the racks everywhere; in bookshops, railway stalls, newsagents – all with their distinctive covers. He was well regarded in his profession. The Crime Writers’ Association give awards in his honour.
I’ve been meaning to write about Creasey’s books for some time, for he is one of the masters of the craft.
His character the Hon. Richard Rollison, better known as The Toff, made his first appearance in Thriller magazine in 1933, his first book outing Introducing the Toff appearing five years later. There were about 60 Toff books published, Creasey would often write several in a year – four of the titles appeared after the author’s death.
The premise of the Toff is that well-brought up gentleman Rollison goes into the East End of London to fight crime, acquiring a reputation and the nickname. He has a calling card showing a gent complete with top hat and monocle, wearing a bow-tie and sporting a cigarette holder. He has an eye for the ladies and a rather nice flat in Gresham Street in Mayfair.
But really Rollison belongs to what the thriller writer Geoffrey Household called “Class X” – he fits in as well with the slum-dwellers of the East End as he does with posh society.
The trappings of the upper-class are present in these stories, but there is none of the dreadful snobbery you get with writers like Sapper and Wheatley. Rollison is a righter of wrongs, with friends he values right across Britain’s ridiculous class divide.
Like all good crime-fighters, the Toff has a winning supporting cast; there is his “man” Jolly, who puts on a pretence of being thoroughly miserable; Superintendent Bill Brice of Scotland Yard, who doesn’t really approve of Rollison, but welcomes his help; Bill Ebbut, who trains fighters in the East End and provides muscle to the Toff when needed. All of them delightfully drawn by the author.
Now, although I’ve been re-reading the Baron stories by Creasey, I hadn’t read the Toff for many years. Then, browsing in an antiques shop in York, while researching backgrounds for my next William Quest novel, I came across a battered copy of The Toff at Butlin’s. My copy had clearly originated at the Butlin’s Camp at Filey, for it is autographed by many of the redcoats working there during the 1954 season – including at least two who went on to become famous in the UK – the comedian Charlie Drake and the entertainer Eddie Keene, although the story is actually set at a Welsh holiday camp.
Now, for readers outside the UK, Butlin’s was and is a very famous holiday camp enterprise, set up by Billy Butlin in the late 1920s. Holidaymakers, usually on limited incomes, could come to Butlin’s for a fixed fee holiday, which included lots of entertainment provided by the famous redcoats (many British variety stars began their careers as redcoats). It was cheap, but it was very cheerful, for Billy Butlin was the complete showman in every sense of the word.
At some point, and I don’t know quite when it started, Billy Butlin approached several writers asking them to set books in one of his holiday camps. Dennis Wheatley, an arch-snob, famously turned him down. But several rather forgotten writers accepted, and two writers at least who are still highly regarded – John Creasey and Frank Richards, creator of Billy Bunter.
Now, the thought of the Hon. Richard Rollison staying at Butlin’s to investigate the disappearance of a trio of redcoats might seem strange, but it works wonderfully. Mostly, because Rollison is never portrayed as a snob and can mix with anyone.
And, by the 1950s, the Toff is rather hard up, putting out his sleuthing skills for money. He has to pay the bills so, when Billy Butlin (who makes a cameo appearance in the novel) invites him to his holiday camp at Pwllheli to investigate why redcoats keep vanishing, Rollison is quite eager to go – spurred on, it has to be said, by the photograph of a pretty girl on the cover of the Butlin’s brochure. His man, Jolly, thinks it all rather undignified and is outraged at the suggestion, but then, well, they do need the money. Some of the most amusing scenes in the novel explain Jolly’s conversion to the Butlin cause.
But what is the mystery which brings the Toff to Butlin’s? Well, I’m not going into any detail, for this is a wonderfully entertaining novel that you really should read for yourself. Sufficient to say that, along the way, there are robberies, the disposal of stolen goods, murders, and the Toff himself under threat from deadly opponents. And just who can the Toff trust? Not everyone can be trusted.
Never has a holiday camp been so menacing in a work of fiction – or so much fun. And the reaction of the campers when they discover that a celebrity like the Toff is in their midst is wittily drawn.
I would think that Sir Billy Butlin must have thought the book a hoot. It’s certainly as readable and fresh as the day it was written.
I shall certainly re-read the Toff novels as I find them. I know his agent is working very hard to make these titles more widely available. But how lovely it would be to see the paperbacks, with the original cover art, back in the bookshops.
And, I must say, I rather like this idea of setting a crime novel at Butlin’s. Sir Billy Butlin is long gone, but if anyone from Butlin’s would like to offer me a chalet for a week or two, I’ll see what I can do…