To call John Creasey (1908-1973) a writing phenomenon would be an understatement of epic proportions. No-one seems to be sure exactly how many books he wrote but most sources estimate the total at over six hundred. Not six hundred short stories - six hundred novels. In 1937 alone he had an astonishing twenty-nine books published.
Not surprisingly given the scale of his output he adopted a number of pseudonyms. Twenty-eight in fact.
His reputation rested mainly on his thrillers but he also wrote mysteries, westerns, adventure stories and even romances.
The Toff was one of the best-known of his many series characters, featuring in no less than fifty-nine books. The Toff Goes To Market, published in 1942, was the eighth book of the Toff series.
The Toff is actually The Honourable Richard Rollison and he’s fairly typical of the gentleman amateur crime-fighters who figure so prominently in the thrillers of the 20s and 30s. He’s more polished than Bulldog Drummond and less flamboyant than The Saint but he’s clearly very much in the same mould. Unlike The Saint Rollison has always stayed on the right side of the law but he has an intimate acquaintance with the underworld and with the slums of the East End where he has gained acceptance through his reputation for fair play.
Like Bulldog Drummond and Simon Templar The Toff works outside the law. He respects the police and is willing both to help them and to accept help from them but he insists on retaining his freedom of action. And like Simon Templar he is prepared to ignore legal niceties in order to see justice done.
This type of character is of course deeply unfashionable today and tends to be misunderstood by modern readers. There are those who insist on seeing characters like Bulldog Drummond as a species of proto-fascist, a completely erroneous judgment that betrays a total lack of understanding of both fascism and of the characters of these fictional heroes. A dyed-in-the-wool conservative like Bulldog Drummond would have no more patience with fascism than with any of the other fashionable isms of the 20th century. These types of heroes are in fact politically rather ambiguous. They are always intensely patriotic and instinctive supporters of traditional institutions but on the other hand the very fact that they are kept busy implies that the established system of law enforcement is not only often inadequate but does not always deliver justice. The Toff, like Drummond and Templar, will bend or even break the law in order to see justice done.
The Toff has a sidekick, in the person of his gentleman’s gentleman Jolly. Jolly is essentially Jeeves, if Jeeves had decided to take up crime-fighting. Jolly is indispensable. He rarely needs to be given instructions. He already knows what needs to be done and he has already done it before Rollison has time to tell him. Jolly is certainly a servant but in common with all the gentleman detectives and thriller heroes of that era Rollison treats his servant with unfailing respect, in fact at times almost with the kind of awe with which Bertie Wooster regards Jeeves. And Jolly can certainly handle himself when it comes to dealing with villains.
The Toff Goes To Market was written in 1942 so it has a wartime background. The Toff takes leave from his regiment (being a gentleman of the upper class it goes without saying that he immediately joined the army when the war broke out) to tackle a black market racket. The racket turns out to be on the grand scale, much bigger and more sinister than either Rollison or the police suspected. In fact it’s such a large-scale operation that it has the potential to cause serious damage to the war effort.
These racketeers aren’t just offering goods for sale on the black market, they are using strong-arm tactics to force shop-keepers and publicans to sell their illegal goods. And they are prepared to go further than mere intimidation - they are quite willing to resort to murder.
This is a thriller rather than a mystery so it follows the usual thriller convention whereby both the hero and the reader know who the chief bad guy is right from the start. What we don’t know is how The Toff is going to bring such a ruthless and powerful criminal to justice. The Toff also doesn’t know the identities of everyone involved in the racket so he can’t be sure whom he can trust.
Of course there’s an attractive young woman mixed up in the events, Rollison being a man who is by no mean indifferent to the charms of attractive young women.
The novel also follows the established convention for thrillers of that period in being concerned with crime, but with crime that may have implications for the safety of the realm. This is crime, but with at least a hint of the possibility of international intrigue and diabolical plots that threaten civilisation itself.
Given the incredible speed with which Creasey wrote (he once claimed to have two written novels in a single week while still having time to play in a cricket match) you would expect the results to be somewhat slap-dash. In fact this isn’t really the case. There’s a decent plot with some clever twists and it all hangs together remarkably well. Creasey’s style might not be over-literary but overall it’s a surprisingly well-constructed thriller.
And it’s certainly entertaining. I wouldn’t rate this particular book quite as highly as the best of the Bulldog Drummond books or the best of Leslie Chateris’s Saint stories but it’s a very competent thriller. Recommended.