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Bookends: Tales of Bold Adventurers March 1, 2018

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Bookends: Tales of Bold Adventurers

By Dan Davidson

September 27, 2017

– 833 words –

This column is about two fairly similar characters, whose adventures shared some common elements and who appeared in print at close to the same time.

 

The Saint in New York

The Saint in New York copy

by: Leslie Charteris

Narrated by John Telfer

Length: 7 hrs and 48 mins

Unabridged Audiobook

Audible Studios

Print Length: 292 pages

Published in 1935

 

Leslie Charteris first gave us the character of Simon Templar, The Saint, in 1928, in a book originally called Meet the Tiger. Writing until 1963, he would produce about 100 books featuring the character, and would authorise its continued use by a number of other writers after that. The character was the lead item in a monthly magazine for decades and, of course, has been portrayed on screen by Roger Moore (his best role, in my opinion), Ian Ogilvie and Val Kilmer (probably the least successful version), as well as some lesser known older movies.

Most of the books, which I used to own in paperback editions, were short story or novella collections, three to eight stories in a book. There were a few novels, and The Saint in New York was probably the most famous.

In most of the stories, Templar is a good-hearted thief or con-man, usually carrying out his capers at the expense of “the ungodly”, as he often referred to the really bad people on whom the preyed.

This one’s a little different. He is hired by a very rich American to clean up New York as revenge for the killing of this man’s son. In this case, cleaning up actually refers to a series of targeted assassinations.

Charteris wrote the Saint as a larger than life individual, very savvy, very robust, almost a comic book character in terms of his stamina and ability to get out of scrapes and turn the tables on his foes.

This is a fast paced adventure with quite a few twists and turns as he pursues the “Big Fellow” who is the anonymous criminal kingpin, working his way through the pecking order and eliminating them one by one.

The police are baffled by this one man anti-gang war, and the one officer we spend narrative time with is sorely tempted to let it continue, though he is annoyed that he can’t have a hand in it, and actually does strike up a deal with the Saint part way through the story.

There are a couple of close calls in the book and Simon is saved at least twice by the intervention of the mysterious Fay Edwards, who has taken a shine to him, even though she is the Big Fellow’s mouthpiece.

John Telfer gives this one a good reading.

 

Versus the BaronVersus the Baron copy

Written by John Creasey as Anthony Morton

Narrated by: Philip Bird

Length: 4 hrs and 41 mins

Paperback: 162 pages

Unabridged Audiobook

Audible Studios

 

John Creasey gave us 44 books about John Mannering, The Baron, beginning in 1937. These were just some of the 600 plus books that he wrote, using 28 different pen-names. The Baron and The Toff were two characters that bore some resemblance to Simon Templar.

Mannering started out as more or less a cat burglar who left a calling card. Initially, he was a thief who preyed on the upper classes, those who could afford to lose jewels and other priceless objects, but as he built up a considerable fortune of his own, he parlayed his loot into honest cash and no longer needed to activate his alter-ego.

When he does so in this book, published in 1940, it’s because he, as Mannering, was almost suckered into being a receiver of stolen goods. When the man he was to have bought them from is murdered, he decides to come to the rescue of that man’s daughter and her fiancée.

He also cooperates with the police. Several members of the force are positive that he is the Baron, but they have never been able to tie him to anything, They make it very clear that he, as Mannering, can be involved in this case, but if any trace of the Baron shows up (not that he ever admits to that) they will be after him.

In the process of helping the girl he, as Mannering, is captured by the head of a criminal gang. This unsavoury individual also has the girl, and Mannering has a hard time staging an escape for both of them, after escaping once on his own and coming back for her later.

The Baron is less of a superman than the Saint, and has to work much harder at what he does, but they are cut from a similar pattern, one whose template I trace back to the character of A.J. Raffles, a fictional gentleman thief in a series of books by E. W. Hornung, written between 1898 and 1909, and therefore likely to have influenced both Charteris and Creasey.

Philip Bird gave this book a solid reading.

 

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Bookends: Two voices of a master British Storyteller January 19, 2017

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Bookends: Two voices of a master British Storyteller

By Dan Davidson

July 20, 2016

– 948 words –

 

There was a seasonal bookstore in the town where I grew up. It was run by a woman who taught ancient Greek at Memorial University, in Newfoundland, and returned to her Nova Scotian home during breaks and holidays. Miss Wall introduced me to British mysteries in my early teens and John Creasey (under that name and over two dozen others) was one of my favorites for a number of years.

None of his books were very long – just around 200 pages was the average – and could I easily read one of them in an evening. Creasey had an incredible range of material out there, penning over 600 books during a career that began in 1930 and continued past his death in 1973. He left a lot of material already written when he died, and his Wikipedia entry (as well as other sources) shows at least 14 novels in various series that were published posthumously.

Creasey’s books are great for Dawson to Whitehorse road trips, because they tend to clock in at around six of seven hours when read aloud. This week I’m dealing with two different series, written under two different names and about 10 years apart.

 

toff-and-old-harryThe Toff and Old Harry

By John Creasey

Narrated by George Hagan

6 hrs and 45 mins

Audible Studios on Brilliance Audio

$12.96

self not only incarcerated but temporality blinded. Several of his associates are also captured, and Rollinson is forced to cooperate with Old Harry
for a time while he figures out how to free both his associates and himself and set up a situation where the authorities can be brought to bear on the bad guys

This book is number 21 in this series and was published in 1949. By this time the character of the Hon. Richard Rollinson had shed a bit of the Simon Templar (The Saint) influence that was obvious in the earlier books, but was still not quite the upper class Peter Wimsey that always seemed to be part of his character.

Known to the police as someone who will help them in a pinch, he is also well respected by London’s underclass and someone who is always fair in his dealings.

Something odd has been happening in the criminal world as this book opens. Second rate crooks are pulling off capers that they should not have been able to plan. There seems to be a level of coordination that just doesn’t feel right.

There are rumors of a mastermind behind it all, and the name Old Harry (a synonym for the Devil) keeps coming up. Because Rollinson is one of the few men who could actually command the loyalty of the underclasses, he is soon surprised to be rumored to be Old Harry.

Thinking he is helping a young woman who has appealed to him for help, the Toff ends up getting captured by the mastermind and finds him

Creasey produced Toff novels from 1938 to 1978 the final ones appearing up to five years after his death.

gideons-month

Gideon’s Month

By John Creasey (writing as J.J. Marric)

Narrated by Hugh Kermode

5 hours ad 38 minutes

Audible Studios on Brilliance Audio

$14.99

 

Using the Marric alias, Creasey produced 21 Gideon of Scotland Yard novels between 1955 and 1976, with another writer carrying the series forward with five more novels until 1990.

Gideon’s Month was the fourth in the series, and followed a pattern set by Gideon’s Day, Gideon’s Week and Gideon’s Night, only this time frame is longest so far.

As one might expect with this long a span to cover, there is more than one case going on. Part of the idea here seems to be to show Gideon juggling a number of cases and succeeding in most of them.

Writing as Merric, Creasey created an early version of the police procedural, with lots of chatter about forensic detail. This quite different stiff from the lone adventurer template used for his Toff novels.

The overarching plot thread begins to spin out when he learns that a crime boss he has never been able to nail properly is planning to emigrate to Australia. Anxious to close that case before he can get away for good, Gideon finds this aim frustrated when the man is murdered. It seems they have the killer almost immediately, but to Gideon it also seem too pat a solution, even if it does open the opportunity to wrap up all the many enterprises this felon had been involved in.

We don’t just follow Gideon in this novel. We have vignettes that highlight cases beyond the big one.

There’s the little boy who is being abused by his mother, who is training him to be a pickpocket. There is, in fact an epidemic of chlld related crimes that has the Yard very concerned.

There’s the case of the estranged husband who has made off with his young daughter in violation of the custody arrangements.

There’s the case of the criminal housekeeper who turns out to be preying on elderly clients, and probably hastening their deaths in order to rob them of their money and goods.

There’s the evil young man who has had a series of marriages which have ended up with the wife dead and him inheriting a fair amount of cash.

There’s the entirely different case of the young bride who apparently managed out fall out the window of her upper story flat whlle her husband was in the washroom.

All of this takes place in the month of May and makes for a very busy month and a pretty absorbing listening experience.

 

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Bookends: More British Mysteries for the Road February 18, 2015

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Bookends: More British Mysteries for the Road

By Dan Davidson

November 19, 2014

– 835 words –

 

On road trips it’s nice to have audio books that pretty much finish when the trip does. I’ve moved from tapes to CDs and on to digital downloads over the years. These two items, from Audible.com (affiliated with Amazon) run to around $19 each and make the drive back and forth from Dawson to Whitehorse seem shorter.

 

Inspector West Leaves TownWest Leaves town

Written by John Creasey

Narrated by Tim Bentinck

Audible Studios

6 hrs and 47 mins

 

In the second of the 43 Inspector West mysteries that John Creasey penned between 1942 and 1978, Roger West is near collapse from over work and, after being mugged and tossed into the Thames River, is sent to the country for a rest cure, along with his wife, Janet.

As he is out of service for part of the book, his amateur friend, Mark Lessing, who actually had rescued him from the river, takes up some of the slack in this odd case. Both West and Lessing have run afoul of a particularly nasty master crook who styles himself “the Count”. He is an physically and psychologically imposing individual who seems to come and go at will, his arrival and departure often signaled by a snatch of classical music played on a harmonica.

The Count appears to have co-opted a wide range of significant persons in various high places in the military and public broadcasting, and seems to have some sort of very high powered scheme going that involves the kidnapping and forcible addiction of the wives and daughters of other important people.

What seems at first to be a mystery about kidnapping and extortion turns out to be more about international espionage, spiced even more by multiple murders and a couple of climactic showdowns that keep you guessing. It’s rather prescient for a mystery written in 1943 to have a plot involving atomic scientists, but Creasey pulled it off quite well.

There are things about the story that are dated, and it’s certainly a period piece after seven decades, but you soon forget the years and Tim Bentinck does a very nice job of reading the book.

 

The DangerThe Danger

Written by Dick Francis

Narrated by Tony Britton

9 hrs and 57 mins

AudioGo

 

The Dick Francis family franchise produced dozens of books while Richard Francis was alive and has continued to since under the pen of his son, Felix. It was apparently an open secret in the publishing world that Richard came up with the stories and wrote the first drafts, while wife Mary polished them to their final form, often with research help from other family members and, in Richard’s final years, open collaborations with his son.

The Danger first appeared in 1983, about half way through Francis’ book a year writing list, and varied his usual themes a bit in that the connection with horse racing is fairly tangential and there’s not much time spent at the track.

The book is really about the pursuit and capture of a kidnapper who specializes in taking his victims from among the racing community. The protagonist and narrator is Andrew Douglas, a former military man and an employee of Liberty Market, a fairly secretive private agency, which specializes in handling kidnapping cases.

Where this is different than what the authorities might do is that Liberty Market’s primary focus is the successful recovery of the victims, by whatever means: perhaps by finding and freeing them, but certainly by negotiating and paying the ransom if that’s what it takes. Capturing the villains is way down on the agency’s priority list.

Where this begins to change, for Douglas at least, is when he finds himself facing the same adversary three times running, a deduction based on the similar patterns in all three cases. The book begins with the liberation of a young female jockey, a case that is almost bolloxed by some inept Italian police work.

Douglas goes beyond his assignment in helping Alessia Pucinelli get back her bearings and her nerve, and the two fall in love, a gradual process that takes most of the book.

In the meantime, a case in England involves a young boy and the English Jockey Club. Douglas and a colleague at the agency handle this one rather differently, with the cooperation of the local constabulary, and manage to rescue the boy, as well as arranging the apprehension of the mastermind’s henchmen.

Exposed in Europe and the United Kingdom, the leader moves his operations to America, recruits a new gang of locals (a key part of his pattern) and takes the head of the British Jockey Club, who is visiting Washington, captive. By accident, Douglas’ role in his two previous failures becomes known to him and he manages to capture the man he has come to think of as his nemesis.

Tony Britton gives an excellent reading of this book and really captures the feeling of the story.

 

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Bookends: Two “reads” for the road February 6, 2015

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Bookends: Two “reads” for the road

By Dan Davidson

August 20, 2014

– 838 words –

 

Last year I introduced this column to the work of the multi-styled John Creasey, an incredibly prolific British writer who made his living with his typewriter from 1935 to 1973. He wrote every sort of book from romance to western to science fiction, but he is best known for his mystery work.

He wrote at pulp magazine speed, with the result that he often had anything from a dozen to a score of books in the bookstores each year. As a result of this he used 28 different pseudonyms, both male and female, including Gordon Ashe, M E Cooke, Norman Deane, Robert Caine Frazer, Patrick Gill, Michael Halliday, Charles Hogarth, Brian Hope, Colin Hughes, Kyle Hunt, Abel Mann, Peter Manton, JJ Marric, Richard Martin, Rodney Mattheson, Anthony Morton and Jeremy York.

So prolific was he that at least a dozen books featuring half a dozen of his characters continued to appear for several years after his death. They were his writing, not the farmed out ghost writing that has become popular in recent years after a famous writer dies.

As I mentioned last fall, Creasey’s facility in various styles was such that his 14 different series have quite distinct flavours. The two I’m dealing with this week don’t seem at all alike.

 

The Baron ReturnsThe Baron Returns

By John Creasey (as Anthony Morton)

House of Stratus

202 pages

$16.05

unabridged reading

Narrated By Carl Prekopp

Audible Studios

Length: 6 hrs and 36 mins

 

The tales of John Mannering, known as the Baron, started out being something like a more straight-laced version of Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar (The Saint). Mannering is still a jewel thief in this second outing (of the 47 books in the series), but most of the capers in this book stem from his efforts to get a friend of his (the man who would become his father-in-law eventually) out of the clutches of a shyster solicitor/financier who has made a career of fleecing honest men and women.

This is a caper novel, and the plot mostly centers on several burglaries committed by the Baron in pursuit of justice for his girlfriend’s father. The break-ins are narrated in some detail, and Mannering is shown to have a bit of split personality. He embodies the Baron as he gathers his tools, slips on his outlaw mask and moves into action. In those moments he ceases to think of himself as Mannering, the wealthy man about town, and becomes his alter ego.

As the Baron he used a number of disguises, and actually has a complete third identity that he uses to divest himself of his stolen goods when dealing with fences. That sedate travelling salesman has a house in another part of the city and often lives there for days at a time.

The structure of the book is that there is a theft, followed by Mannering’s continuing attempts to persuade Inspector Bristow of Scotland Yard that he had nothing to do with it. Bristow is absolutely convinced that Mannering is the Baron, but simply cannot manage to prove it, so there is a constant sparring between the two, and a couple of sequences where the police lay careful traps that the Baron just manages to evade by the skin of his teeth.

 

The House of the BearsThe House of the Bears

By John Creasey

House of Stratus

234 pages

$13.20

 

Unabridged reading

Narrated by Stephan Greif

Audible Studios

Length: 7 hrs and 42 mins

 

Creasey created the character of Dr. Stanislaus Alexander Palfrey (Sap to his closest associates and his wife) during WWII and made him the head of a spy organization called Z5. By the time of this eighth book of the 34 in the series (written in 1947), Palfrey seems to be on leave from Z5. He actually is a doctor and we meet him travelling to the Yorkshire Moors at the request of another physician. At Sir Rufus Marne’s House of the Bears there has been an accident and Marnes’ daughter lies terribly injured after a fall from the minstrel’s gallery, which Palfrey discovers was no accident.

This book starts out feeling like an Agatha Christie style manor murder mystery in which the bodies keep piling up without any rhyme or reason. What’s missing from this formula is any sense of who the murderer might be. At least that’s the case until about half way through the book, when the plot takes a sharp turn into thriller territory, with some post-war Nazi trappings and the sort of world-wide danger from a power mad schemer that Ian Fleming would work into his James Bond novels when he began those with Casino Royale in 1953.

 

The audio book versions of these books make great long distance driving fare, running fro six to seven hours each. The productions are solid and the readers are interesting. The Audible productions are digital downloads that cost about $20 each, somewhat less if you subscribe to the monthly service.

 

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Bookends: A Busy Day in the Life of a Scotland Yard Superintendent December 29, 2013

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Bookends: A Busy Day in the Life of a Scotland Yard Superintendent

By Dan Davidson

June 18, 2013

– 692 words –

 

Gideon’s Day

Gideon's Day

By John Creasey

As J.J. Marric

House of Stratus

216 pages

$16.50

 

Audiobook version

Audible

Read by Tim Bentinck

6 hours, 25 minutes

 

The police procedural is a pretty common format both in print and on television these days, though the current breed is more heavily influenced by the CSI model than by the older style Law and Order methods. It all had to start somewhere though, had to get past the murder mystery’s reliance on private and consulting detectives, the gifted wealthy amateurs with too much time on their hands, or the Robin Hood-like characters who somehow worked for real justice while breaking the law.

 

John Creasey had begun his career writing about freelance adventurers with code names like the Toff and the Baron, not quite legitimate fellows who might or might not cooperate with the authorities, but were on the side of the angels in the end. After nearly 20 years of success under his own name and as Anthony Morton (along with the 26 other pseudonyms he would use to produce more than 600 novels before his death in 1973) he decided to do something different; he decided to follow the life and work of Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent (later Commander) George Gideon.

 

Gideon is married, but his home life is a little shaky due to his extreme focus in his work. Unlike many later British police series, it would appear from this book that GG, as he is sometimes known, is aware of the problem and making attempts to do something about it. Gideon is presented to us a first rate investigator who is respected by both his subordinates and his superiors. His wrath is a thing to be dreaded and his approval much sought after. His unit runs like a well-oiled machine, and he cultivates good relations with the other branches of the police force, coordinating all their efforts from his office.

 

This book covers just one day in the life of the Criminal Investigation Division, a day during which Gideon has to deal with a corrupt subordinate, who is murdered just hours later; solve that murder and incidentally bring down a drug smuggling operation; protect the confidential informant (CI) who tipped him off to the bad egg in the CID; track down and capture a pedophile child killer; and foil a clever robbery at a major safe deposit business. In a touch of realism, there are a few loose threads at the end of the day, but enough successes to keep the unit’s record in the plus column.

 

While we spend most of our time with Gideon, Creasey also takes us into the inner workings of the criminals and, in one or two cases, the victims. We even spend time with Gideon’s CI, who is busily skulking about London trying to avoid the minions of Murphy’s Gang, who have been tasked by Chang, the drug smuggler, with tracking him down. Some of the cases are related to each other, but there are several that are unconnected to anything else going on in the novel, and these simply go to show the variety of things that Gideon has to juggle in the span of what turns out to be about a 16 hour day.

 

One of the things that surprised me about this book was how totally different it was in tone and style from the Toff book I reviewed here about a month ago. By the time I first encountered Creasey back in my high school days his books generally bore the “John Creasey, writing as (fill in pen name here)” cover copy, so I always knew who was writing the Toff, the Baron, Inspector West, Dr. Palfrey and other characters when I picked up the books. Comparing the “seat of the pants” adventure style of Richard Rollison’s (the Toff) stories with the down to earth, step by step narrative of the Gideon novels, I would never have connected the two series with the same writer had I not already known.

 

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Bookends: More Good Mysteries for the Road December 29, 2013

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Bookends: More Good Mysteries for the Road

By Dan Davidson

May 8, 2013

– 891 words –

 

Introducing the Toff

Introducing the Toff

By John Creasey

House of Stratus

186 pages

$14.25

Introducing the Toff

By John Creasey

Narrated By Roger May

House of Stratus

$20.00


Length: 6 hrs and 34 mins

John Creasey was one of the most prolific of the 20th century generation of British mystery writers. He produced some 600 books in a variety of genres during his career, knocking out several each year and doing so under his own name as well as under nearly a dozen pen names. I used to have 30 or 40 of his books, my focus having been on the Toff, the Baron, and Roger West

mysteries, as well as the slightly science fictionish Dr. Palfrey series. It’s been easily 35 years since I’ve read one and he disappeared from the stands for a while, but he seems to be making a comeback in e-books and audio books as well as in paper.

This is the first of the Toff series, and not a book I had ever read. The Toff (a word meaning a rich person, or “swell”) is the alter-ego of the Honourable Richard Rollison, who comes across as a sort of cross between Leslie Charteris’ Saint and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. The Saint was more of a loner and Wimsey not nearly so physical.

Rollison strikes fear into the hearts of the ungodly but has a good many

devoted friends on the wrong side of the tracks as well due to the ways in which he helps anyone that he feels could use a leg up.

He is drawn into this case when he is ambushed for no reason that he can think of while minding his own business on a narrow country lane. It turns out the bad guys wanted to hold him up just long enough to be able to get away from the scene of a murder they have committed just up the road a bit. They didn’t know who he was at the time. Their mistake.

From this accidental beginning, the Toff is drawn into a case that involves murder, drug smuggling and kidnapping and, at one point, requires him to pretend to be dead while recovering from injuries sustained in the chase.

This book is the first of 59, written between 1938 and 1978. Creasey actually died in 1973, but had so many books already finished, than his publishers had another three to seven years worth of posthumous releases (by J.J Marric, himself and Anthony Morton) to fill their lists after he was gone.

The book certainly shows its age in terms of style and social assumptions,

but it’s a great road book, and just about the right length for the drive from Dawson to Whitehorse.

 

Promised LandPromised Land

By Robert B. Parker

Dell

224 pages


$11.99

Promised Land

By Robert B. Parker

Narrated by Michael Prichard

Series: Spenser, Book 4

5 hours and 27 minutes

 

A promised land is what neither Harv nor Pam Shepherd have managed to find in their relationship after 20 decades of marriage and several small children. Trying to scramble to the top of the real estate heap has gotten


Spenser locates her, but decides not to tell Harv where she is other than that she is safe. This turns out to be a blunder as Pam and two loony friends who have overdosed on the Feminine Mystique and got it mixed up with the Black Panther movement (this is 1976, remember) decide to finance their 
Harv into trouble with a loan shark named King Powers, but that’s not why he hires Spenser. He hires her to find Pam, who has flitted off in order to find herself.

revolutionary dreams by robbing a ban so they can have money to buy guns.

In the event, one of the loonies kills am elderly bank guard and triggers the fun that begins. Meanwhile Harv is being visited by Hawk (his first appearance in the series), who is working the collection racket as Powers’ muscle. When Harv finally admits to Spenser that he is in over his head, Spenser is left in the unenviable position of trying to solve the problems of the two estranged spouses and perhaps get them back together for the sake of the kids.

It’s complicated.

This fourth book of the series is finally the one where Spenser leaves Brenda Loring’s charms aside and settles on Susan Silverman, who is still a high


Prichard seemed to get more into the narration of this book. There was less of the flat affect in his delivery than in the first three I listened to. Part of this is probably because Dr. Parker was writing a bit less like his literary heroes from the
Black Mask magazine days and finding his own style. He was getting to the point where he could enter his own promised land. He had become a full professor at this point and in just three more years his fifth novel would allow him to quite teaching and spend the rest of his life writing.school counselor at this point in her pre-doctorate life. Their relationship is a but shaky but intense, and Parker tries out his later habit of talking us right up to the bedroom door but (mostly) leaving them some privacy.

 

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