Friday, April 01, 2016

Forgotten Books: The Death Miser - John Creasey

I think I’ve mentioned before that I read a lot of British mysteries when I was in junior high and high school. One of the authors I read regularly was John Creasey. His books were readily available in all the libraries where I checked out books, and they were usually pretty entertaining. I was introduced to Creasey’s work by the TV series THE BARON, which wasn’t a very faithful adaptation of the character but was enjoyable enough to make me seek out the source material. Most of the Creasey novels I read featured either The Baron, Inspector Roger West, or Commander George Gideon, although I think I read one or two of the Toff series, as well.

One series I never read—until now—was Department Z, about a top secret branch of British Intelligence that used mainly civilian operatives, all under the command of spymaster Gordon Craigie. The first book in the series, THE DEATH MISER, is available as an e-book, so I decided to give it a try.

The protagonist of this particular novel is foppish, wealthy young playboy James Quinion, who has a double identity as hardboiled secret agent Jimmy Quinn of Department Z. (Are there any foppish, wealthy young playboys in fiction who are really what they seem to be, or are they all secretly crimefighters of some sort?) Craigie assigns Quinion to keep an eye on a suspicious character who happens to be staying at a cottage next door to the country estate of Quinion’s aunt, and sure enough, within a few pages Quinion has clashed with said suspicious character, who’s beating a dog. (A literal dog heavy, to use a B-Western term.)

That starts the plot galloping along, and before you know it, there’s a murder in a London nightclub, disguises, secret passages, bizarre weapons, and a plot to take over the world. Quinion gets hit on the head and knocked out a few times, falls for a beautiful girl who may or may not be trustworthy, takes part in numerous chase scenes, and finally saves the day and reveals the mastermind behind everything.

This novel was published originally in 1933, and Creasey revised and updated it for a reprint in 1965, which is the version I read. I wish he hadn’t – let books stay in the era for which they were originally intended, I say – but in this case the updating seems really minor, a mention of Hitler and a few other things but nothing that actually affects the story. And the atmosphere is definitely still the Thirties. Creasey seems to have been influenced by Leslie Charteris. Quinion recruits a couple of his friends to help him in his battle against the bad guys, and they reminded me a lot of Roger Conway, Norman Kent, and Monty Tremayne, Simon Templar’s sidekicks. The villains in THE DEATH MISER are also very reminiscent of the villains in THE LAST HERO and THE AVENGING SAINT.

At the same time, a lot of the trappings of this book, as well as a secret meeting of the bad guys that Quinion manages to get into, reminded me a great deal of GOLDFINGER, so I have to wonder if Ian Fleming ever read Creasey. I have no idea, but it seems possible.

Even the updated version of THE DEATH MISER is really dated, but it’s also a lot of fun. Creasey knew how to keep a yarn racing along. I know I have several paperbacks by him on my shelves. I may pull one of them out and give it a try before too much longer.


Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Are there any foppish, wealthy young playboys in fiction who are really what they seem to be, or are they all secretly crimefighters of some sort?

Bertie Wooster?

I agree, I wish Creasey hadn't updated his old books. I've read all the Gideons and some of the Roger Wests but few of his others.

Years ago, I friend took me to a huge warehouse in Bournemouth where they were selling a ton of Creasey books from various of his pen names, supposedly from his personal collection. It was great to see them all in one place.

George said...

You're right about the dated aspects of some of Creasey's novels, but the guy was a born storyteller. I've read over 100 Creasey books and found fun in all of them. Yes, some are better than others. I've read that Creasey would be working on writing a dozen manuscripts at a time. Amazing!

John said...

I always wondered if Department Z and Z5 the secret "peace promoting" organization run by the mysterious Marquis of Brett featured in the Dr. Palfrey books. Could it have been a spin-off? Or did he just like using Z spy organization names? I've not read any of the Dept. Z books but they sound similar to the later books in the Dr. Palfrey series which started out as espionage in the war years then morphed into books that were took the 1940s weird menace idea and turned them into the eco-terrorism thrillers. Creasey may have invented that subgenre. He was certainly very creative with the various mad scientists who were bent on controlling the world through the weather, famine, mind controlling drugs, and even extraterrestrial menaces that caused sterility and infertility in the unsuspecting masses of rural England.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Thanks for drawing attention to this, James. Coming across ebooks on Amazon or elsewhere by chance is very hit and miss. Maybe one needs to do repeated searches for favorite authors! I see Ipso Books have reissued several more of the Department Z stories -- three of them available as a box-set bargain. I hope their venture isn't canned for one reason or another, as happened with ebook reissues a while back of Creasey's books by "Gordon Ashe" and "Norman Deane".

Back in the 1950s I corresponded with John Creasey on several occasions. He was a kind of childhood hero, once I'd decided at a very early age that I wanted to become a writer. I went on after school to a first job at Fleetway Publications in London where I worked on the staff of the detective series Sexton Blake Library, to which Creasey himself had at one time contributed five novels. Later, I wrote books and stories in other genres and under other names. Creasey also wrote romances, YA adventure and westerns besides mysteries, but I've been nowhere near as prolific.

I have three of the John Creasey westerns and did have something to say about them in my article "Detectives in Cowboy Boots". See the online magazine Black Horse Extra ( It has an image of a handwritten message I once received from Mr Creasey!

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Was one of the westerns the one with the flying coyote, Chap? Or was that an urban myth?

Anonymous said...

Re the query: "Are there any foppish, wealthy young playboys in fiction who are really what they seem to be, or are they all secretly crimefighters of some sort?"
Well, of course, some of them are "secretly CRIMINALS of some sort." / Denny Lien

Chap O'Keefe said...

I have only three of Creasey's 30 or so westerns, Jeffrey; they are almost as rare as his "Margaret Cooke" and other romances. So I can't quote title and chapter. But in the October 9, 1968 edition of the Tucson Daily Citizen Creasey admitted, "I'm probably unique among western writers in that I had a coyote flying about in one of my books." In these digital days, we have research and checking facilities readily available at comparatively low cost. Creasey's slip seems farcically unbelievable. You have to remind yourself of, or find out about, the date and circumstances in Britain when the book concerned was written. I would be mortified if someone found a flying coyote in a Chap O'Keefe western! The first of these was written in New Zealand in 1992.

Like you, I also regret updated editions of fiction from bygone golden ages. In The Death Miser, after just a few pages, I have already come across mention of a hovercraft, which couldn't have been in the 1933 original. For me, that jars with the overall tone. It might not, however, for someone who wasn't around in the 1950s when the invention was made and officially launched in Southampton. And as James pointed out, the thirties atmosphere has overall survived '60s revision.

I have two of the Department Z books in hardcover from the original publishers, Andrew Melrose and Stanley Paul. A third I have in paperback; a 1958 Jay Books paperback version. I hope to get more of the Ipso ebooks, finances and reading time permitting.