Redhead was the second of John Creasey’s Department Z thrillers, appearing in 1933. It’s a roller-coaster ride of mayhem and action. Subtle it isn’t, but in its own way it’s entertaining enough.
Department Z, run by Gordon Craigie, is a secret British intelligence and counter-espionage outfit although from time to time they also assist Scotland Yard in criminal investigations, if the crime is on a sufficiently spectacular scale. And in this case the crime certainly qualifies as spectacular. A series of daring large-scale robberies is bad enough, but it appears that American gangsters are now operating in England. American gangsters with machine-guns are not the sort of thing His Majesty’s Government wants to see on the streets of England.
Department Z itself is not much in evidence for most of the book. The action centres on the adventures of two wealthy well-born young Englishmen, Martin Storm and his cousin Roger Grimm. Martin and Roger are keen, and rather skillful, pugilists. On a trip to the United States they run afoul of the mysterious but feared red-haired gangster known only as Redhead. Run afoul of Redhead means being attacked by hoods with machine-guns, an attack the two cousins survive. Martin and Roger are advised by the American authorities that for the sake of their health it might be a good idea for them to return to Britain. On the sea voyage home they encounter a young red-haired American tough and a rather pleasant youthful brother and sister, Letty and Frank Granville.
Martin and Roger are invited to the Granville’s country house, Ledsholm Grange. It should be a quiet weekend in the country but it leads to murder, kidnappings, gassings and copious amounts of gunplay. They are caught between two rival gangsters. Both gangsters have big plans and Martin and Roger seem likely to be irritating obstacles standing in the path of those plans.
Naturally Ledsholm Grange is honeycombed with secret passageways which will play a crucial part in the action, but the role of secret radio transmitting station is not quite so obvious.
For the most part this novel falls into the category of thrillers dealing with decent upper-class Englishmen who find themselves drawn into a web of intrigue, danger and deception, all of which provides just the sort of recreation that they enjoy. It’s the sort of formula Dornford Yates used very successfully, although Yates was a rather more polished writer than Creasey. What Creasey lacks in polish he makes up for in non-stop action. Redhead has no literary pretensions - this is pure entertainment but it delivers the goods effectively enough.
Martin and Roger are not exactly complex protagonists. They like a fight, they like adventure, and they can be relied on to do the right thing. Creasey could create far more complex heroes, as he did in his thrillers featuring the Baron and the Toff, but in this book he is content to concentrate mostly on thrills.
The fear that the violence and lawlessness of America during the gangster era would spread to Britain may not have been justified but it was certainly understandable in 1933 and anxiety about organised crime is a theme that appears in quite a few British thrillers of the time.
Redhead is not in my view as interesting as Creasey’s Baron and Toff novels but it’s a pretty enjoyable and rather outrageously over-the-top action-filled thriller. Worth a look.