Recent Events

Friday 1 April 2016

Richard Creasey talks about his father’s work


Carol Westron talks to Richard Creasey
about his father’s work

John Creasey

John Creasey published 562 books following 743 rejection slips. He lived near Salisbury, Wiltshire, England on land once given to Sir John Botenham by King John. Married four times, he had three sons, three daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren.

An extensive traveller, he twice went by sea and car round the world and virtually commuted between England and the USA. He visited 49 of America's states and knew 47 of them very well. He also knew Europe, north, east, south and west, and drove as far as Moscow through Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
Two television series, Gideon and the Baron, have been made from his books, as well as a number of movies, including Gideon's Day starring Jack Hawkins.

Carol: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I've always admired your father's work and been in awe of his amazing out-put. It seems incredible that anybody could write well over 500 full-length novels, especially when they are such excellent reads. I get the impression that he loved story-telling. Is that the case?
Richard: Absolutely.  I can’t remember Dad ever reading my brother, Martin, and me a bedtime story.  Instead he’d ask us, with that mischievous smile that I can see to this day, what story we’d like to hear.  A story about Africa, or Humpy (the Humber Super Snipe car he drove around the world in 1950 when I was six), or a mouse, or a lion – anything.  And Dad would tell us a story we’d never heard before because he was thinking it up as he went, and illustrating it beautifully in thick led pencil on an unlined notepad.  And it was seldom a normal story, mice flew, cats swam and Humpy protected us from roaring lions, frightening tigers and wild buffalo. Yes, Dad loved telling stories.

Carol: When I wrote an article about your father for Mystery People, most of the feedback I received was from people who had loved the Toff. I think I provoked a lot of rummaging round in attics in search of newly remembered paperbacks. My favourite Creasey books are the ones featuring George Gideon. Did your father have a favourite character amongst the large number he created?
Richard: The Toff, definitely.  Let me tell you a story to illustrate why I am so certain.  Way back at the start of the 20th century Dad's mother and father were smallholders, owning a tiny plot of land near the coast in Lincolnshire.  During a severe ‘perfect storm’ it was ruined, drenched with salt water spray, and so Dad's father set out on foot for London in search of work, Mum and their seven children followed soon afterwards.    Dad's father found a job in Chiswick, London at H. J. Mulliner & Co, a very British coachbuilder that produced special bodies for Rolls Royce and Bentley cars.   When my Dad was about ten he asked his father why they didn’t have a Rolls Bentley, after all he made them.  And when he got that horribly sensible adult answer my Dad declared that when he grew up he’d earn enough money to buy himself a Roller. And in 1960 he did, a 'pre-owned' one to be fair, which he drove from London to Moscow (another story) and around the world for a second time.  And on the front doors of that splendid Roller was the Toff logo, discreet, the size of a half-crown, but he loved it being there. And the Toff logo was on all his letterheads, compliments slips, visiting cards and even on his tie.

Carol: Going back to Gideon of the Yard, one of the remarkable things about those stories was that Gideon was not investigating one or two serious cases, he had his finger on the pulse of investigations into numerous serious crimes and, although the majority of them were in London, he also dispatched officers throughout the country. As far as I am aware, this was unique in crime fiction at that time and made the Gideon books exceptionally realistic. Was your father the first person to structure his crime novels in such a way and did he find the Gideon books harder to write than his others?
Richard: Yes, to the best of my knowledge, Dad was the first author to have a protagonist police detective, Commander Gideon, involved in lots of cases at the same time.  I am sure this complex character leap forward led Hollywood director, John Ford, to base Gideon’s Day, starring Jack Hawkins, on the first book of Dad's Gideon series. And encouraged the Mystery Writers of America to present Dad with the Grand Master Award. But no, surprisingly Dad didn’t appear to find this series harder to write because he wrote Gideon at the same speed as the Toff, Dr Palfrey, Inspector West indeed every one of his books - twelve to fifteen thousand words a day, so five days for a 60,000 word mystery.   However Dad began to change that book-in-a week rhythm around the time he started Gideon.  He’d write during the morning only, so each story would take ten days to complete.  This allowed him afternoons to revise novels he’d written a year earlier, which had been sent out to five readers,  or write a play or plan a drive to Moscow, or get involved in politics.   Dad, who married four times, drove around the world twice, formed his own political party and fought four by-elections - never losing his deposit, was extraordinary.

Carol:          In the 1930s and 1940s your father wrote Westerns. What was his experience of breaking into the US market, both with Westerns and his other books?
Richard:      Yes, I loved some of Dad’s Westerns and I know he did too, but sadly they don’t really figure in the story of him breaking into the US market.  That began in 1936 when Dad’s first Baron story, Meet The Baron, won the Cracksman competition for crime writers, organised by publishers George G Harrap in England and J B Lippincott in the United States.  As a result the first seven Baron stories were published simultaneously in the UK and the US.  But none of his other series were published in North America and in 1947 the Baron was passed over too.  So a year or two later Dad sailed on the fabulous Queen Mary from Southampton to New York to find out why.  By this time he’d written, and had published, well over 100 books in the UK, and he took a lot of these with him, including some of his Westerns.  In pulsating, prosperous Manhattan, which took Dad’s breath away when he compared it to bombed and rationed London, he was ever so politely met by five agents and as many publishers.   All said the same thing.  Thank you for taking the trouble to visit us. We’ve read your books and know the Baron and we’re impressed with the vitality that bursts out of them but, your writing style is very British, it just won’t work internationally.  We’re sorry, but don’t despair you are clearly extraordinarily well loved in your own country and that’s what matters.  They knew that wasn’t true, American mattered hugely, and Dad, who you may know, had 743 rejections slips in his time was incapable of taking no for an answer.  So less than a year later he was driving Humpy, the Humber Super Snipe I mentioned earlier, with mum in the front and my brother and me in the back, from Cape Town to Durban via Johannesburg.  He’d written a book on the sea journey to Cape Town and sold it and a bunch of other books to a happy South African publisher.  A year and a half later Humpy and its exhausted, but always excited occupants, arrived in Manhattan. And Dad’s books had by then been published in South Africa, Pakistan, India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.   What’s more, having driven all the way across North America, from Vancouver, via Los Angeles to New York, visiting book shops, listening to readers, dropping in on Sheriffs, Dad had learned a lot about the mystery stories that American readers so loved.   Soon Manhattan publishers were competing for different series and from that time on nearly all of Dad’s new and revised books were published simultaneously in the UK and the US, and indeed in 26 other territories.  But Dad wrote no more Westerns and although he did revise a few for the UK, none were published in the US.

Carol: I understand that your father actually wrote you and your brother into some of his books. What did that feel like?
Richard: During the 2nd World War a police inspector moved into our road in Bournemouth.  At a meet-the-new-neighbour party he asked Dad why the police catalysts in his Toff and the Baron stories were so flat-footed. So Dad, who by then was writing 36 books a year as part of his contribution to the war effort – he had polio and therefore couldn’t join up - and was always searching for new characters, created Inspector West of Scotland Yard, a handsome, successful Metropolitan police detective.  In the light of his neighbour’s fair criticism Dad went further, turning Handsome West into a family man with a loving wife and two children.  And to make things that little bit easier, 36 books a year was a lot even for Dad, my mum, Jean, became Roger West’s wife, and Martin and me their children.  That meant whatever my brother and I were doing, as Dad bashed out a Handsome West story, went straight onto the page.

What did that feel like?  At the time I never gave it a thought but forty years later I was in Siberia, the team leader of a never-been-done-before overland adventure endorsed by the United Nations, filmed for world wide television, driving every inch of the way from London to New York, in the ice-cold depths of winter.  Minus forty degrees centigrade was normal!  As we reached a Gulag town of Cherskiy, at the northern end of the notorious Kolyma River, someone shouted Hero Creasey.   For a moment I thought that meant me as I was the team leader of a sensational adventure, until the town librarian embraced me as a hero for being John Creasey’s son and shoved one of Dad's Inspector West books into my frozen hands and pointed to Richard in the book.  I was as proud as Punch, Dad would have been too.

Carol: You have written a series of books featuring Doctor Palfrey? How did that come about? Why did you chose Palfrey? Your father created so many series characters that you must have been spoiled for choice. Are there more Palfrey books in the pipeline? And is it likely that you will write adventures featuring other John Creasey heroes?
Richard: In that way that one road leads to another I determined to join the Crime Writers Association (CWA), which Dad had founded back in the fifties to encourage crime writers to keep writing. As you know to join the CWA a novelist needs to write a full-length novel and find a ‘proper’ publisher.  And so I thought I might kill two birds with one stone by writing a book that was inspired by one of Dad’s characters and which in turn might get people who read it to turn back to Dad’s original. The book I chose to inspire mine was The League of Light because it started with an airplane crash, and I’ve had a pilot’s license for donkey's years.  And it was a Palfrey book. I’ve had a soft spot for Palfrey ever since I left school with no ‘A’ levels (no one knew of dyslexia in those 

and Dad offered me a job sorting out his archives provided I went to the local secretarial college and learned to touch type. I did and to give me some proper experience he wrote The Famine, his 26th Palfrey novel, in long hand so that I could type it with four carbon copies – believe me this used up a lot of Tipp-Ex.

Dad himself described The Famine as his most terrifying allegory.  He 'created' a creature called lozi, a kind of rabbit with a nine-day gestation period and litters of up to 12 at a time. These, Dad used to show how the population explosion, unless checked, could well bring about the end of civilization, as his lozi almost ate man off the face of the Earth. And the more I typed the more I was convinced the apocalypse would come before Dad could find a way out.  

Dad was a master, and The Famine, written in two weeks, mornings only, is still one of my favourite John Creasey books. My Eternity’s Sunrise was a first novel, which took me over two years to write. It’s my favourite Richard Creasey book!  And just as I had with The Famine I feared the world would end before I could think up a non apocalyptic ending to the horrifying events taking place in a former Gulag town in Siberia!

My other grandson-of-Dr Palfrey books were written with a lot of help from Andrew Cartmel.  If they take off I’m sure we’ll write more, in the meantime, having achieved my dream of joining the CWA, I’ll happily leave crime writing to my famous Dad.

Carol: Your father was a remarkable man, a prolific writer and meticulous editor, but also interested in many other things. How do you think he would wish to be remembered?
Richard: Goodness, for the first time since I started answering your questions I find myself staring at a blank screen. 

Dad, for as long as I knew him, was torn between his genius as a storyteller, but he knew he wrote too much too fast - he just couldn't stop himself; and his irrepressible wish to be the politician who broke the party mould – during times of financial crisis, and he lived through three of those, he didn’t want the most appropriate Conservative or Labour politician to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer he wanted the most able politician from any party to have that job.  He set up his own political party, All Party Alliance, but despite fighting four by-elections it didn't take off.  So in answer to your question, I think my Dad would like to be remembered as a brilliant storyteller, and a self-made millionaire who spent most of his fortune striving to leave the world in better shape than he found it.

Thank you Richard.

Richard Creasey is also an author as well as a distinguished television producer, having served both in the private sector and at the BBC, and as the British producer of Patrick Watson’s  worldwide Canadian television documentary series The Struggle for Democracy. He has developed his father's "Doctor Palfrey" series by penning a new
series of techno-thrillers around the character of Doctor Thomas Palfrey.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her second book About the Children was published in May 2014.

No comments:

Post a Comment