Thursday, June 9, 2011

Book Review: Introducing the Toff, by John Creasey (1938)

In the late 1990s, the Black Dagger Crime series released a very large number of old mysteries and detective stories in clean, hardback copies. As far as I can tell, these went mostly to libraries; at least, I've never seen them anywhere except at libraries and used book stores. As a mystery buff, and in particular someone who is particularly fond of detective stories written before World War II, I was (and am) a big fan of this series.

One of the books in the series was Introducing the Toff, by John Creasey. Written in 1938, when Creasey was 30 years old, it was the beginning of a series that ran for 40 years and eventually totaled 59 books. Remarkably, this was only a small portion of Creasey's output. He published more than 600 books under 28 different pseudonyms, and also had a minor political career in Britain as a member of the Liberal party.

As you would expect, given this background, Introducing the Toff is a slick and professional bit of work designed to keep you entertained for a few hours -- sort of a television show in book form. It mostly succeeds. "Toff," in British slang of the 1930s, referred to a wealthy person, and the hero of this story is the Hon. Richard Rollison. All we really know about him is that he's very rich, he loves to play cricket, he's in his mid-to-late 30s, and he spends his time waging war on criminal gangs in Britain. He's very jaunty and cocksure. In this story, he crosses swords with "The Black Circle," a vast drug-running organization based in Turkey that is flooding England with cocaine. He goes up against a motley array of villains, including an evil Egyptian guy whose name I've already forgotten and "Garrotty the Yank," who is meant to be a ruthless American gangster. There's also a seemingly sweet English girl and her fiance who may or may not be what they seem.

You will probably be entertained by this book, but at no point will you be surprised. To me, what's really interesting about this book is the fact that it represents yet another series from the 1930s featuring an extremely wealthy hero who also fights crimes. Between the Toff, the Saint, Albert Campion, Lord Peter Wimsey, and assorted other rich crime-fighters of the 1930s, it is amazing that anyone was left to attend the Eton-Harrow cricket match.

I have no idea why this genre was so popular. The cynic in me would note that very few elite classes in history demonstrated the utter incompetence of the British elite from 1900 to 1945. These people literally inherited the largest and most successful empire in the world -- and lost it all within two generations. Maybe the original readers of these stories found it comforting to believe that even though every member of the establishment you ever saw was grossly incompetent, men like the Toff were working away behind the scenes to protect Britain from evil gangsters.

But this genre is not to be sneered at. A lot of the rich-guy-becomes-detective stories are simply fabulous -- stories like The 39 Steps, Trent's Last Case, and Strong Poison are all classics of their kind. And without the Toff and others like him, we never would have gotten James Bond. So the Black Circle leads to SPECTRE, and Garrotty the Yank leads to Diamonds Are Forever. For this reason alone, I tip my hat to John Creasey.

Recommended to Anglophiles who like period pieces of the type described above.

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