John Creasey usually writes books that you’d call “genre fiction” or perhaps “pot-boilers”, meaning they are formulaic and do exactly what they say on the tin. For example his Inspector West stories will always involve the titular West employing police procedure to track down local criminals, with a little levity and seasoning added from his time back home with the
ball and chain wife and kids. His Cruel As A Cat, first published under the pseudonym Michael Halliday in 1968 as part of his Dr Cellini series, is nothing like that. It’s a character study that reads much like Agatha Christie’s The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd.
I can’t tell you how it differs from TMORA without giving away that classic’s key twist, so I urge you to read Agatha Christie’s best novel. But what it shares with TMORA is as follows:
- Mostly in the perspective of a central character who begins the story having discovered a recently murdered corpse without having a solid alibi himself.
- The franchise character (Cellini here, Poirot in TMORA) doesn’t appear for quite a while, and only then as he is encountered from the perspective of other characters. The detective is not a perspective character himself .
- Ultimately it’s all about the psychology of the murderer, hidden from all but the reader until the detective figures it all out.
Cruel As A Cat begins with poor young James Clayton hidden in shrubbery on the moors at the peak of summer while a manhunt rages around him. He’s the prime suspect in the strangulation murder of his adoptive sister Gloria, discovered that morning in her apartments soon after James was seen quarrelling with her over an inheritance she’d jipped him out of. From the beginning Creasey makes it clear – as the reliable narrator – that Clayton is innocent. But he’s on the run and in deep shit.
His hiding place is disturbed by a dog called Blixi, out being walked by its owner, a Mrs Midge Benison – a beautiful young woman who recently moved into the area with her shifty husband Alec. There’s a tense scene where Midge seems about to turn James in to the posse over the next ridge, but something stays her hand. She seems to believe his protestations of innocence. Quite unexpectedly, she offers him sanctuary in the attic of her apartment, rented out from the spinster Trudie Stern who lives on the ground floor.
It’s here where Creasey begins the head games, as he slips in some misgivings and red flags regarding Miss Benison and her motives. She doesn’t seem quite right. Too flirtatious, too controlling, and altogether a little odd. More a bunny-boiler than a pot-boiler. Thus the character portrait begins. Clayton is kept couped up, effectively a prisoner in the attic – considering the danger of being ensnared by the manhunt outside – while Miss Benison plots and schemes to as yet unknown ends.
It’s a fact of life that men understand other men far more accurately than women ever can. The reason men worked so hard to present themselves as dependable and of high moral character was that they needed a girl’s father to approve a marriage proposal. Society knew men’s arsenal of bullshit is far more effective on a woman than upon a fellow man, especially a man a generation older than the bullshit artist. This works the other way. Though Miss Benison effectively beguiles the young men in her life (fugitive James and her husband Alec, among others) she can’t fool Miss Stern, her landlady. Stern reaches out and is put in touch with Dr Cellini, who finally appears in chapter nine, making a house call for tea and biscuits with Stern. She relates her concerns:
“It’s past time I told you why I’m worried,” said Miss Stern at last. “There is something rather odd about the young woman who lives in my flat upstairs.” She told Cellini exactly what she had told [Inspector] McLelland although in somewhat greater detail. “Of course I know that the Lombroso theory is out-dated, Dr. Cellini, one cannot really tell a criminal type from their bumps, but—”
“You can often tell a kind person from their face– and a cruel one, too” said Dr. Cellini. “That is, if you are sensitive to appearance, as you obviously are. You might be unpleasantly surprised if you knew how many people there are who enjoy being cruel, Miss Stern.”
While taking an interest in facts, Cellini is as interested in ‘the psychologies’ as Hercules Poirot himself. In order to subtly ascertain the quality of Miss Stern’s interpersonal judgement he asks that she give her impressions of a mutual acquaintance, the Superintendent Hardy who made their introduction. It’s a nice scene, showing Cellini as keenly observational and precise in assessing his sources.
Dr Cellini no longer looked a benevolent elderly man; he took on a stature of which she had not been aware before. She realised that with very little prompting he had made her talk much more freely than she would normally have done, but she could not for the life of her imagine why he had made her discuss Superintendent Hardy. To cover an inward confusion which she did not want to admit, she plugged in the kettle and took the lid off the silver dish of Mary Jane’s sandwiches.
“You are telling me to pay very close attention to your opinion of the Benisons” remarked Dr. Cellini. “A woman who can see a stranger so clearly as you see Hardy is likely to have a very balanced view of someone she knows rather better. How long have you been uneasy about the Benisons, Miss Stern?”
I ate this up. One thing drummed into me from Game theory is the need to elicit values early in a date. It encourages the girl to talk, to share her mind, and build rapport. As I explain in Daygame Infinite, it allows you to begin placing her on the r/K spectrum so as to guide your choice of DHVs and speed of escalation. Detective stories focused on ‘the psychologies’ are good role models for this type of interpersonal communication .
This whole book was as smooth as butter with delightful pacing, precise language and suitably colourful characters. I was somewhat surprised how little Cellini’s investigations relied upon careful consideration of evidence. There wasn’t the usual Poirot business of double-checking alibis and establishing timelines, nor of Sherlock Holmes minutely investigating footprints and tobacco ash. This was all about the psychology. The publisher’s biographical note at the book’s end clarifies it nicely:
One of the major factors in John Creasey’s ever increasing popularity is undoubtedly his talent for viewing and so portraying his characters as living beings; each with his own special problem, each with his own hopes and dreams and fears. John Creasey has now written nearly 500 books, and in essence this extraordinary achievement is a testament to his penetrating observation and understanding of human behaviour. Criminals, their victims, the police – all he writes of are touched with this very real compassion.
I absolutely agree and that puts the finger on why I liked his Inspector West and The Toff stories so much . Although Creasey stories are structured like pot-boilers, the characters are never empty suits. They always feel like real, engaging people. I felt like I knew Clayton, Benison, Stern and Cellini.
If you’d rather women were just shagged rather than empathised with, consider buying and then studying my pick-up textbooks Daygame Mastery and Daygame Infinite, which will encourage your malevolent sociopathy into far more constructive paths than murder. Check them out here.
 Not unlike how Mr Moto is usually written in those classic Japanese espionage stories.
 As are espionage stories that rely primarily on verbal jousting to uncover the intentions and secrets of rival spies.
 And not the early Department Z stories, where he hadn’t yet developed these skills.