Reviewed by DAVID L. VINEYARD:         

JOHN CREASEY Meet the Baron

ANTHONY MORTON (JOHN CREASEY) – Meet the Baron. Harrap, UK, hardcover, 1937. US title: The Man in the Blue Mask, Lippincott, hc, 1937.

   As 1935 rounded to an end, John Creasey was broke and out of work — not unusual in those days — but there was a writing contest offering a handsome prize, and Creasey had his eyes on it.

   He had already had some success with the adventures of Gordon Craigie of Z5 and the Toff at Monty Hayden’s Thriller , and he knew he could win that prize if he could finish the book he had in mind.

   But he only had six days left.

   For anyone else this might have been hopeless, but we are talking John Creasey, so I can’t wring much suspense from that end.

   What’s remarkable is the book he churned out in those six days.

   John Mannering, the Baron, is perhaps the most unusual of the gentleman crooks who dominated British thriller fiction between the wars. He is no swashbuckling Saint or decadent Raffles. He has a code, but it is unique to him, as is his sense of justice. He is the only one of the gentleman crooks who would have been perfectly at home in Black Mask (though The Saint did make it there, he didn’t really fit) along side Erle Stanley Gardner’s Phantom Crook, Ed Jenkins.

JOHN CREASEY Meet the Baron

   John Mannering stole for one very simple reason — he needed the money. He is an upper middle class gentleman who has a small income and a little land, and he would like to keep his comfortable life exactly as it is.

   He could never find a job that would support that lifestyle, but crime… And true to his nature, he pursues his new career with a practical and no nonsense application of common sense.

   No avenger he, though he does have a sense of justice that will give him trouble at times.

   Mannering had been engaged to a well-to-do socialite, but when his money ran out she dumped him peremptorily without a second thought. Something changed in John Mannering, and the Baron was born.

   The Baron began his new career even while he was hunting down old lags to teach him the skills he would need. He preyed only on those who could afford the loss, but unlike Raffles he didn’t mind stealing from his host. In fact it was a specialty of his. He even robs his ex-fiancee. At one point he steals a valuable wedding present, and then reminds the policeman guarding it to check the gifts while he tells the host.

   The Baron persona is only born when an innocent man is accused of one of Mannering’s crimes. He writes the police a hectoring letter in the style of Arsene Lupin, and signs himself the Baron. Then he strikes again to prove his point.

JOHN CREASEY Meet the Baron

    Scotland Yard in the form of Bill Briscoe is drawn in. Briscoe is no helpless Ganimard (Arsene Lupin’s nemesis) or Claude Eustace Teal. He is a bright policeman, and he is soon on the trail of the Baron — whom he suspects is his friend Mannering.

   Thus begins a long history of suspicion. Even in later years when Briscoe leaves the Yard to work for Mannering at Quinns, the exclusive auction house the Baron acquires after marrying his love, the portrait artist Lorna, and going straight, he still suspects his old friend of being the notorious Baron.

   But he never proves it, despite Mannering’s seeming inability to stay out of trouble and his insistence on using the skills of the Baron to extricate himself and others from danger. Even at the end of Meet The Baron, when Mannering is wounded and risks his neck and freedom to rescue Briscoe, he manages to keep the Baron’s secrets.

   Most of the gentleman crooks went into intelligence work when WW II came along. Mannering was a desk sergeant at an RAF base. It somehow seems fitting.

   The Baron was the first of Creasey’s heroes to reach the American shores — for some reason called Blue Mask here — and a huge success in France and Italy where he became film auteur’s Jean Cocteau’s favorite crime fiction character. Umberto Eco made a special nod toward the Baron in his recent novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Lorna (2005).

JOHN CREASEY Meet the Baron

   The ITV television series The Baron had little to do with Creasey’s creation, with Mannering becoming American oil baron Steve Forrest who acquires Quinns and is drawn into adventures via that. Sue Lloyd and Barry Morse co-starred.

   A forty year run is pretty good for any gentleman crook, forty seven outings from Meet the Baron (1937) to Love for the Baron (1979).

   Creasey always seemed to put a little extra effort into the Baron’s adventures. Mannering reformed, but he never felt any angst or guilt about his past, and he was always willing to break out the Baron’s bag of tricks in the pursuit of justice — not terribly patient with police work, this fellow.

   Meet the Baron by all means. He’s something a bit different from the usual run of gentleman crooks. But be warned, like candy, one calls for another, and there are forty-two years of adventures to catch up with.