Over the years there have been many prolific crime writers, but when it came to output, British author, author John Creasey was in a league of his own.
John Creasey wrote so many books under such a variety of pseudonyms (29 is the usual figure, though who can be certain?) in a wide range of genres (crime, romance, sci-fi, westerns…) that the exact tally will likely never be known for sure. Most sources name figures that range between 400 and 600 books. Whichever way you cut it, he published more than a dozen books a year throughout a working life that spanned four decades.
Even more remarkable, John Creasey’s work improved as the years rolled by until, by the 1950s and 60s, he was producing books that rank amongst the finest crime fiction penned in the twentieth century.
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John Creasey’s early life
Such success didn’t come easily. Creasey was born into a tough working-class family in southwest London in 1908. The seventh of nine children, he contracted polio as a boy. The disease left him with a permanent limp, disqualified him from sports, and made him a target for bullies.
At the age of ten, inspired by a kindly teacher and a seaside holiday, Creasey announced his intention to become a writer. His aspiration was mocked by his parents and siblings as a sign of delusions of grandeur. Blue-collar Londoners didn’t become authors, they worked. At first, publishers seemed to share this cruel assessment. Over the course of his early adulthood, Creasey’s novels racked up a remarkable 734 rejection letters from British publishers.
Undeterred and ever willing to learn from his mistakes, Creasey battled on, working as a clerk in a fruit and vegetable shop and writing at night. Persistence paid off. In 1932 his novel, Seven Times Seven, a breezy romantic thriller featuring a gang of international criminals and a beautiful film star, finally found a home with a London publishing house. Creasey treasured his first review. Forty years later he’d recall reading the positive notice in the London Morning Post as one of the happiest moments of his life.
Prepare for Action
John Creasey’s incredible daily word output
From then on Creasey did not let up. He hammered out between six and seven thousand words a day on a manual typewriter. When asked how long it took, he replied cheerily “On a good day three hours, and on a bad one thirteen hours”. He created best-selling series about Department Z (a branch of the British secret service dedicated to protecting the Empire from evil-doers including Hitler and Mussolini), the fist-fighting upper-crust action hero, Patrick Dawlish, gentleman sleuth. The Honourable Richard Rollison (AKA The Toff) and a roguishly handsome antique dealer and housebreaker, John “The Baron” Mannering.
Creasey’s most productive period was part of his personal war effort. Unable to fight for Britain against the Nazis because of his withered leg, the author determined to give the troops and those in the home front some relief from the horror of The Blitz. Working seven days a week, Creasey produced 36 novels a year from 1940 until 1945, providing much-needed escapist entertainment for fighting men and their families.
The Death Miser
Worldwide success as a prolific crime writer
When the Second World War came to a close, Creasey was a successful man, living in a large house in the seaside resort of Bournemouth. However, his books did not sell internationally. Determined to change all that, Creasey sold the family home, loaded his wife and two young sons into his Humber automobile, and set off on a marathon round the world drive that would last for a year-and-a-half and take in Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America.
In every major city along the route, Creasey called the local publishers and offered them the chance to publish his books. He was as persuasive a salesman as he was a storyteller. By the time he and his family arrived back in Britain, the author had publishing deals everywhere from South Africa to the USA via India and Australia. He even managed to sell his novels in Eastern Bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
A Kind of Prisoner
John Creasey’s surprising additional achievements
Back in Britain, Creasey carried on as before. By now plump, with owlish round glasses and a mass of swept back grey hair, he wrote as much as ever, but also—incredibly—found the time and energy to stand for the British parliament as a Liberal, form his own political party, found the UK Crime Writers Association (CWA), and marry four times.
The Mark of the Crescent
An unexpected career turning point in John Creasey's career
Another turning point in Creasey’s life would arrive accidentally. The author had been writing a successful series of novels about a good-looking Scotland Yard detective, Roger West. One day a neighbor who was a serving London police officer, mocked the style of the West books, and challenged Creasey to write “a realistic novel about a policeman” instead.
The result was Commander George Gideon, a large and solid London cop who tackles crimes from serial murder to white-collar fraud via drug-smuggling and terrorism aided by a team of detectives who range from the brilliant to the hopeless, from the reliable to the corrupt. While Creasey’s earlier work such as The Baron was the stuff of brightly-colored 1960s Saturday night TV entertainment, the Gideon books are darker and less glamorous. The central character plunges himself into his work partly as a means of escaping the pain caused by the premature death of one of his children. The police work is methodical, the crimes, often realistically grim, are carried out by recognizably nasty villains.
The Enemy Within
John Creasey's enduring crime fiction legacy
The New York Times hailed Creasey’s twenty-one Gideon novels (originally published under the pen name J.J. Marric) as “A splendid achievement” likening them to the work of Honore de Balzac. Gideon’s Fire won an Edgar Award from The Mystery Writers of America in 1964 and in 1969 Creasey picked up the MWA’s greatest honor, the Grand Master Award.
For Creasey writing was a vocation. The characters that chattered in his imagination were often more real to him than the people he met at social functions or in the street. He carried on creating fiction until 1973, when death finally extinguished his burning energy.