Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Baron and the Chinese Puzzle: John Creasey

To many people, characters like the Baron may sound straight out of scripts of low-brow entertainer movies, centred on superheroes who can achieve whatever they set out to, be irresistible to every woman they meet and escape every seemingly fatal situation virtually unscathed. So they may be, but they are entertainment unlimited for lazy Sunday afternoons and for train journeys.

It was in one such longer-than-anticipated train that I read The Baron and the Chinese Puzzle. This very clearly is one of the later pieces involving the Baron, because he also used to be a Robin Hood of sorts earlier, stealing precious stones from the undeserving rich. I like that Baron better: The Baron and the Chinese Puzzle is a bit too tame by those standards; it does not feature the Baron, just John Mannering.

But Mannering is a superhero, isn’t he, so the plot requires superhero-dom as he goes off to Hong Kong, originally to attend an exhibition of rare jewels, but, as it turns out, to broker peace between two warring political factions in China. Why does he do it?

The truth was, he wanted to. It was not that he thought he should, conscience had nothing to do with it. He responded to such a challenge as this as other men responded to the call of the high mountains, or the great oceans, or great causes. It was the same call that made him the Baron.

So Mannering does, and succeeds, with the usual mixture of foiled attempts on his life, the odd red herrings, his impeccable disguises (he changes himself to look and talk like an American, and fools everyone, including those at the American embassy) and the inevitable not-so-surprising twist in the end.

Honestly, I think Creasey should have stayed inside the British isles (or restricted himself to the odd adventure into the mainland European continent). Asia is not his comfort zone, and it shows. The stereo-typing is un-missable and the touch of exotica, inevitable. But the real let-down is the absence of even some minimum research to get the facts right.

“The woman approached me as I walked here, and I gave her five twenty-anna notes.”

This is a dialogue mouthed by Mannering to the police in Bombay, India. Never in the history of India have they had currency notes denoted in annas. Even if one assumes a printer’s devil and substitute notes with coins, it doesn’t stand up, because twenty-anna coins never existed in India either. Two printer’s devils and you get twenty-paisa coins, which may just pass muster, but then that’s too much blame to apportion to the editors and to save the author.

Will this stop me from reading or re-reading more from my John Creasey collection? Reading Creasey has perhaps become too much of a habit for me to give it up completely, but I reckon I certainly will think twice before reading another of his books set outside England.

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