Book Review: Gideon’s Fire by John Creasey

Just as Hilary Waugh and Ed McBain aimed at writing police procedurals that reflected police work in the United States as it really was (as opposed to the police/classic amalgam that had been in effect prior to their work), John Creasey in England was trying to do the same thing.

His first foray into police procedurals involved Inspector Roger West of Scotland Yard (beginning with Inspector West Takes Charge [1942]), a series that ran through the 1970s in over two dozen titles. Creasey wrote several other series, involving detectives both professional and amateur.

His most famous police procedural series involved Inspector George Gideon of Scotland Yard, beginning with Gideon’s Day (1955), written under the pseudonym J.J. Marric. That first novel covered a single day in the life of Inspector Gideon as he marshalled the forces under his wing to bring to a close several open cases. The next two novels in the series, Gideon’s Week and Gideon’s Month, likewise make use of a fixed timeframe to organize the narrative. Gideon’s Fire, the 7th in the series, won the Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel of 1962.

In this outing, Commander George Gideon of Scotland Yard has to deal successively with news of a mass murderer, a depraved maniac, and the deaths of a family in an arson attack on an old building south of the river, and a person likely guilty of embezzlement. All this leaves little time for Gideon to pay attention to any troubles developing at home.

Creasey presents Gideon as a master of the machinery of law enforcement. To a much greater degree than the McBain novels, where we are put in the squad room with the detectives investigating the case, here we see the workings of the mechanism of law enforcement through the eyes of a manager. When we first meet Gideon in this novel, he is running late for work. It seems that he and his wife very much enjoyed their evening together (no details are provided – typical British reticence, you know), and he overslept, and, consequently, is in a rush. A similar rush to get to work occurs in Gideon’s Day. In both cases, this departure from Gideon’s usual efficiency is presented as unusual and amusing, for it seems that the ever-efficient Scotland Yard man is quite unskilled and easily flustered when it comes to driving.

A flustered Gideon is something his fellows at the Yard rarely see. Joe Bell, who works with Gideon, is witness to Gideon’s working method on a daily basis (and has been for 20 years), and it is always a wonder to him to see Gideon under deadline. On the first morning of this novel, Gideon has little over an hour to get a dozen or so investigations moving forward. As Creasey tells us, “Gideon in a hurry was an experience in itself.” He successfully moves all the work along, and Creasey tells us “with each of these [problems] Gideon dealt unhurriedly, and yet in the minimum of time,” getting everything done ten minutes ahead of schedule.

Gideon handles the management of the cases in this novel with dispatch. Some cases are whodunits – the case of the sexual assault and murder of a girl, and the case of arson, for instance, while others are howcatchems (we know the identity of the businessman guilty of embezzlement, and the likely killer of several young women). In the case of the businessman, and of the arsonist, we also get a view into their hearts and souls, something not always present in procedurals, which generally focus the investigation from the police’s side only, at least until the criminal is caught and interrogated. Each of the cases in this book has its own detective in charge, and we mainly see the investigation through the investigating detective’s eyes. But over it all, we see Gideon deploying resources coolly and efficiently.

In his Gideon novels, we are shown some of Gideon’s home life, and how his strenuous work at the Yard sometimes comes at a cost to his family life (in this book, Gideon misses the signs that his son—about to take exams for Oxford—may be in trouble, noticing it only after his wife makes it clear to him, whereas his hectic day is likely to cause him to miss his eldest daughter’s violin recital in Gideon’s Day).

The Gideon novels are unlike Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct stories. Where McBain gives us a sense of the squad, and a sense of the city (Isola, modeled on New York), Creasey focuses mainly on the orderly machinery of the Yard. Though the crimes in this novel are terrible, we do not get the sense of menace that we find in McBain’s stories; rather we are struck by Gideon’s sure leadership at the Yard, and of the professionalism of his men. In some ways, the Gideon novels, though set in London, are rather like Waugh’s Last Seen Wearing than like police procedurals set in urban America. And one gets a sense that the home life of Gideon, though well-described, runs counter to how Creasey wants the book to go. They are obligatory glances at the personal world of the detective; it is at work that Gideon and the books really come alive.

If you get a chance, check out John Ford’s 1958 film Gideon of Scotland Yard (based on Gideon’s Day) starring the redoubtable Jack Hawkins as the Scotland Yard inspector. Currently this is only available as part of a boxed set in the United States, and no local libraries currently carry a copy. It is possible to find the item for download as a rental or purchase on Barnes and Noble or as a purchase on Amazon.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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