A character called The Toff was the hero of a series of thrillers written from 1938 onwards by John Creasey. (Those from the 1950s and '60s might be of interest to Victorianists, portraying as they do places and people at the very end of the Victorian legacy.) The hero, The Honourable Richard Rollison, was born a toff; the courtesy title is given to the eldest sons of Viscounts and Barons. He's a man about town and an amateur crime solver whose manservant, Jolly, is a kind of sleuthing Jeeves. As in Wodehouse, too, aunts are in abundance, particularly the Edwardian Lady Gloria Hurst, or Old Glory, who runs a sheltered home for women. But The Toff is no snob — not only is he on first name terms with all the top brass in Scotland Yard, he also knows many of the lowly coppers on the beat as well. He's a particular friend of Bill Ebbutt, ex-prizefighter and landlord of the Blue Dog pub and gymnasium in the East End. Even Ebbutt's boys, trainee boxers, are devoted to the Toff and often act as a private police force, coming in all sizes from fly- to heavyweight.
Creasey wrote over 560 books by the simple expedient of writing ten thousand words a day. Speed like that left no time for reflection and what we have, below the not quite believable characters, is an uncensored and pretty accurate portrait of the way things were. In A Doll for The Toff, for example, we come up against the raw unthinking racial attitudes of the English of the 1950s, and also of course of their forebears in the imperial past. The book is about the first immigrants to arrive in London — it centres on voodoo — and today would be not only unpublishable but unthinkable as well. The Toff and the Golden Boy deals with drugs and juvenile delinquency, as it was just beginning to be called — and no longer is. Yet there is a kind of innocence about it (few people knew what real addiction looked like) and the book ends on an upbeat note as if the problem would soon be going away.
Physically as well as socially, The Toff's London is closer to that of the 1890s than today's; corner shops and coal-fired power stations, cargo ships crowding the river, derricks and cranes working on the wharves, a docklands of smoke black brick, small factories and workshops with their own tall chimneys in cobbled alleyways.
John Creasey (1908-1973) had twenty-eight different pen-names. As J. J. Marric he created Gideon of the Yard. These novels, set in the 1950s, also give an insight into the self-image English people had at that time and, by extension, the Victorians too. Decency, is perhaps the key-word, and fair play. We may think they were wrong in this, but that is certainly the way they saw themselves.
Creasey, John. A Doll for the Toff. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1963.
Creasey, John. The Toff and the Golden Boy. New York: Magnum Books, 1969.
Marric, J. J. Gideon's Staff . London: Pan Books, 1959.
Last modified 3 January 2006