Englishman John Creasey (1908-1973) may well be the most prolific author who has ever lived. He had at least 562 novels published during his lifetime and most authorities believe the actual total was over the six hundred mark. Creasey wrote under his own name and under no less than twenty-eight pseudonyms. The Toff was one of his most enduring series characters, featuring in fifty-nine books.
The Toff made his first appearance in print in a story called The Black Circle written for Thriller magazine. The story was later enlarged to novel length as Introducing the Toff, published in 1938.
The Toff is a variation on the gentleman desperado amateur crime-fighter thriller hero made popular by characters like the Saint, Blackshirt and Bulldog Drummond. Like these other heroes the Toff often operates outside the law whilst always remaining on the side of justice. The Toff is slightly unusual however in being an actual aristocrat, something that sharply differentiates him from the Saint. The Toff is actually the Honourable Richard Rollison.
Like Bulldog Drummond and the early version of the Saint the Toff has a number of associates who assist him in the course of his crime-fighting activities, although the only one who makes an appearance in this first novel is his manservant Jolly. Jolly will later become a fully fledged sidekick, and a very competent one, but at this stage he still remains very much in the background.
In Introducing the Toff Creasey tells us that at the time Richard Rollison left Cambridge University he had a fortune of half a million pounds and a very decided taste for adventure, a taste he indulged in the disreputable quarters of various cities in various continents. Having returned to England he has become the scourge of the London underworld and something of a legend in the East End. He is feared for his ruthlessness and efficiency but he has also started to acquire a different sort of legend, as a man who always plays fair and is prepared to stand by any man who offers him help in his implacable war on crime.
The Toff lacks the larger-than-life quality of a Bulldog Drummond and the mischievous wit of a Simon Templar. At first sight he does not appear to be a very formidable opponent, being slight in build and somewhat unassuming by nature (at least in comparison with Bulldog Drummond and the Saint). This is perhaps one of the reasons he has become so feared - criminals who get on the wrong side of him quickly discover that he is far more dangerous than he looks. There is something uncanny about a slightly built rather quietly spoken gentleman-about-town who is a crack shot and is equally deadly with a knife or in unarmed combat.
Like the Saint the Toff has a distinctive calling card with a drawing of a top hat, a monocle and a cane in place of the Saint’s famous stick figure.
This first Toff novel opens with an encounter with a mysterious gunman on a lonely road, an encounter which almost brings the Toff’s career to an abrupt end. He has decidedly the worst of the encounter but he is not overly bothered by this. He sets about tracking down the gunman with his usual quiet determination.
Rollison has in fact stumbled upon an international drug-smuggling ring, and a number of very dangerous enemies including a sinister Egyptian and a trigger-happy Chicago hoodlum. There is of course a heroine in distress as well, although the Toff has to admit to himself, somewhat reluctantly, that she may not be as innocent as she appears.
The Toff is more inclined than most thriller heroes of his era to work with the police, or at least to co-operate with them.
While we have no doubt that the Toff will eventually triumph he gives us some anxious moments along the way, especially when he manages to get himself blown up. The Toff is quite happy to admit that he is capable of making mistakes, a quality that makes him a rather endearing hero. He lacks the sublime self-confidence of the Saint but he also lacks the Saint’s arrogance. The Toff’s great strength is his quiet doggedness.
The most extraordinary thing about Creasey is that despite the truly incredible pace at which he wrote (he once claimed to have written two novels in a week) there’s nothing slapdash about his writing. He was an unbelievably fast but also highly disciplined writer. He was also able to create complex and interesting heroes.
There’s as much action as you could wish for in a thriller. The Toff of this first novel is not yet a fully developed character but he’s already pretty interesting. It seems that most of the great British thriller series of that era really need to be read in sequence. Like the Saint the Toff evolves somewhat in subsequent books.
On the whole a highly enjoyable read. Definitely recommended.