Sometimes you need to think hard and search out AMOG opportunities for your friends. Other times, AMOGs present themselves to you. When reading this 1933 book from John Creasey, the first of 28 in the Department Z series, I was elated to discover the main character is a foppish ne’erdowell called Jimmy. The story opens with him visiting his Aunt Gloria at her country home. She’s fond of him but wishes he wouldn’t waste his life.
Once again Lady Gloria laughed. This utter absurdity of Jimmy’s was infectious; a man who could make a butt for humour of his own habits and discuss his faults with such complete aplomb was surely less of a fool than he looked. Only – Lady Gloria sighed mentally – why did he make himself look such a fool?
You can bet a screencap of that paragraph got sent over WhatsApp. There was something in there to ask Jimmy.
The set up is such that I at first believed this book to be a James Bond imitation and it wasn’t until I noticed some quaint old language that I suspected it pre-dated Ian Fleming. Department Z is a secret government office run by the secretive Mr Gordon Craigie who is exactly like Mac in the Matt Helm books of thirty years later. Jimmy works as agent Number 7 attempting to root out plots against Her Majesty’s Government. His frequent trips take him overseas. To maintain secrecy, Jimmy has a cover identity as a dissolute skirt-chasing toff and it’s that which concerns his elder relatives (who aren’t read into Department Z’s existence).
Telegrams of similar nature had often come to him during the four preceding years, and directly after them he had taken a holiday from England, and spent a week, a month, or even longer in what Colonel Cann [his uncle] described as ‘women, wine and perdition’.
In the book he’s working for the Secret Service but I did need to ask Jimmy if his euro-jaunting wasn’t some kind of cover for espionage. Art imitates life and life imitates art so when Aunt Gloria questions him on his aimlessness, I couldn’t help but think these would be words I’d utter myself:
‘I think,’ she said slowly, ‘that he would be satisfied if you didn’t look quite so…. useless… sometimes.’ She eyed her companion squarely, refusing to respond to his laughter. ‘You do slide through life, don’t you, Jimmy?’
It’s lucky Death Miser contained such nuggets because it’s an otherwise crappy book. That surprised me because I’ve read a dozen John Creasys before this and they were all good. The answer lies in the date, 1933. It’s his third novel and the first two were standalones, making this his first attempt to begin a franchise. He’d written – and I’m not shitting you – a stunning 43 books before the first of his Inspector West series, which are my favourite.
Creasey got considerably better at his craft over time, as you may expect.
There’s a short interview with his son on the official John Creasey site where he explains his dad used to give himself five days to write a novel. That’s almost incomprehensibly fast for something that gets legitimately published in the paperback era . Back in those days printing technology severely constrained publishing so paperback authors would literally write to certain page count, based on a multiple of the individual sheaves of papers glued inside the cover. That’s why they are all the same size.
Creasey became so confident of his ability that he wouldn’t even plot his detective stories. He’d begin with a simple idea, throw in a clue, and then have his fictional detectives solve the mystery for him as he wrote. As the protagonist moved forwards, Creasey would think up – on the spot – the next clue or next twist. He was winging it. I sensed this make-it-up-as-you-go-along plotting when first reading the Inspector West yarns and it gives an air that anything might happen. It feels real because there’s the unusual sensation of a genre novel (i.e. plot-driven) that is actually somewhat character driven.
But that was all to come. In 1933’s Death Miser, it’s just shite. Creasey was only 25 years old when it was published and it shows. It’s impressive for a young lad who banged out three novels that first year, but by the standards of regular genre fiction its very immature. Half the time I wasn’t even sure what was supposed to be happening.
The story is thus. Jimmy is out in the countryside visiting his Aunt Gloria when he gets a telegram from Department Z telling him to put a watch on his next door neighbour Thomas Loder, a suspicious character. It turns out a dozen bad apples are having secret meetings there and the boss wants to know what. He meets a stunning girl who he goes doolally over but the least credible turn is that her dad (and Jimmy’s neighbour) is the head of an international criminal network that is about to pull the trigger on a World Revolution.
Yeah, they just happened to set-up their HQ next door to Department Z’s top operative. That’s roughly equivalent to Spectre setting up shop next door to James Bond’s apartment in Sloane Square. You’d have to be 25 years old to write that.
Jimmy blunders his way through a couple of gun-fights, cabaret shows, car chases and showdowns with The Miser (the dad) and it’s dreadfully dull. I dare say that Fallen Angel was more skilfully written. So, this book is a load of shit. I don’t recommend it at all. I do, however, absolutely recommend John Creasey’s later work. He’s an accomplished pro by the time Inspector West appears.
Speaking of accomplished pros, you might want to check out my books available in the USA here, the rest of the world from Amazon here, and if you want to know more about each book and what it’ll teach you, look at my product summary here.
 As opposed to Kindle Direct Publishing where there’s no such quality control and books are often less than half the size.