The Baron Returns was the second of forty-seven novels in the Baron series written by the unbelievably prolific John Creasey (1908-1973) under the pseudonym Anthony Morton. The Baron Returns was published in Britain 1937 (and appeared in the US under the title The Return of Blue Mask).
The Baron belongs to the tradition of fictional gentleman thieves, a genre that originated in late Victorian times with E. W. Hornung’s justly celebrated tales of Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman. In fact Creasey won a literary competition to find a worthy successor to Raffles with his first Baron book, Meet the Baron, in 1937. By the 1920s the gentleman thief genre had changed slightly. Actually the change can be dated slightly earlier, to the appearance of Louis Joseph Vance’s The Lone Wolf in 1917. Raffles was quite unapologetically a thief. He did have some vague notion of ethics. He only stole from people who could afford the loss. He was however a man who lived a life of ease and luxury on the proceeds of crime. The new breed of gentleman thief had to be more in the Robin Hood mould. He was allowed to make a very comfortable living from thieving but he had to do good as well. He had to punish wrongdoers, and at least some of his thieving had to be for the benefit of innocent victims of other crimes. Bruce Graeme’s Blackshirt (published in 1925) was the first English example of this new type of ethical thief.
The Baron started his literary career in Meet the Baron as a relatively straightforward Raffles-style glamorous cat-burglar. The Baron Returns sees him moving quite dramatically in the Robin Hood direction. The Baron is actually John Mannering, an elegant man about town whose income is woefully insufficient to support his extravagant lifestyle. Like Raffles he sees crime as his only viable option. He has now made enough money from burglary to be reasonably secure financially. This allows him to concentrate on carrying out burglaries for much purer motives, such as helping unfortunate widows who have been victimised by unscrupulous stockbrokers and shady lawyers. In the course of such a wholly laudable burglary he comes into possession of some extremely interesting documents - documents that could put a crooked stockbroker in gaol for a long stretch, and documents that could threaten the future of a wealthy American financier. John Mannering intends to make full use of this information, but he has to do so in a way that will threaten neither his own comfortable existence nor the well-being of any innocent parties.
Not surprisingly one such commendable act of virtuous burglary leads to the necessity for another, and yet another. In the course of these activities the Baron finds himself tempting fate - fate in the person of his nemesis, Superintendent Bill Bristow of Scotland Yard. Bristow has already figured out the Baron’s real identity but his problem is that even though he hopes to put him behind bars he actually likes John Mannering a good deal, and recognises that as criminals go he’s a pretty decent chap.
The Baron might be a noble thief but he’s determined not to spend the best years of his life rotting in prison and he’s prepared to adopt fairly drastic means to avoid such a fate. He draws the line at murder but he’s quite happy to use his fists and he does so with considerable enthusiasm and efficiency. While other gentleman thieves rely on their wits the Baron is a bit more of a two-fisted action hero. His burglaries generally offer Creasey the opportunity to display his prowess at writing quite exciting action scenes.
Creasey liked his heroes to have a bit of complexity and John Mannering is certainly a morally ambiguous hero. He often steals for a good cause but he loves the excitement and one can’t help suspecting he enjoys the more violent side of his adventures. In this novel he crosses swords with another morally ambiguous character, the aforementioned American financier who is certainly a crook but equally certainly not an evil villain type of crook. That’s not to say the novel lacks for evil villains - it has two such characters and they’re pleasingly dastardly and wicked.
Superintendent Bristow is a bit ambiguous as well. On occasion he displays extraordinary zeal in pursuing the Baron but at other times he finds himself half hoping he won’t catch him. The relationship between the Baron and Bristow is somewhat reminiscent of that between the Saint and Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal.
While the Baron has much in common with the other great thriller heroes of the interwar period like the Saint Creasey’s tone is much more serious. There’s none of the lighthearted banter of a Simon Templar, a Bulldog Drummond or a Norman Conquest. John Mannering takes his activities much more seriously and he’s always keen aware of the grim fate in store for him if he slips up. The tone is slightly darker, although never depressingly bleak or overly pessimistic. The Baron is also interesting in that one can see a certain development in the character in the second book as compared to the first. John Mannering seems to be gradually finding a purpose in life. He’s becoming less self-centred. He’s still a long way from being a knight errant in the Simon Templar mode but one can see that Creasey intends him as a character with potential for further development.
The Baron Returns is a fine old-fashioned adventure tale with a hint of moral complexity, and it provides plenty of solid entertainment. Highly recommended.