The Baron in France by John Creasey writing as "Anthony Morton" (1953)
British writer John Creasey (1908-1973) was one of the most prolific and popular writers of the mid-twentieth century. He produced over 600 books under 28 pseudonyms, sometimes publishing as many as 17 novels in a year.
Creasey toiled seven years trying to break into publishing while gathering a large number of rejection slips. He published his first book in 1930 and his first mystery novel in 1932. Creasey was not by any means a great writer, but he was a competent and fast writer.* Some of his books were very good. I am partial to his Commander Gideon novels (as "J. J. Marric") and I also like his Inspector (later Commander) Roger West series. Many of his other series are certainly readable; I've read about forty of his novels and enjoyed them all, and have about twenty more lurking around the house somewhere.
Creasey wrote 47 books (published from 1937 to 1979) about "The Baron,"** a sophisticated, Robin Hood-like jewel thief who reformed and under his true name, John Mannering, now owns and operates Quinn's in London -- an exclusive antiques store that that does much trading in precious gems. Of course no one knows that Mannering was The Baron, although several -- including police officers -- suspect it. As The Baron, Mannering is a master of disguise and a daring athlete with a large knowledge of the criminal arts. A number of Creasey's earlier books were slightly revised and updated for a US audience.
The Baron in France starts with a daring burglary in a London flat. The thief gets the fabulous Gramercy jewels but is interrupted by the owner, jewelry dealer Bernard Dale. The thief shoots and kills Dale and attempted to kill Dale's 12-year-old daughter. Circumstances point to Dale's junior partner Tony Bennett, who is arrested, tried, and sentenced to hang. Mannering is convinced Dale is innocent but is stymied in trying to find the real murderer until ten days before Bennett's execution date when Dale's ex-wife shows up at Mannering's door.
Stella, the ex-wife, is remarried and living in France. She overheard a conversation between her brother-in-law and his father, indicating that the father now had possession of the stolen jewels. Stella's father-in-law is the wealthy Comte de Chalon, a monomaniac collector of stolen art and gems. With time running out for Tony Bennett, Mannering travels to France to see if the Comte actually has the jewels and, if so, to discover where he had got them; the person who sold the jewels to the Comte was the one most likely to be the real murderer.
Ah, but the best-laid plans...There's another murder and Mannering is framed as the killer. Mannering's wife is kidnapped. An attempt is made on Mannering's life. Worse, Mannering gets nowhere in solving the mystery.
The Baron in France is a fast read, a mere 190 pages. The pace does not let up. On the negative side, there are a lot of awkward sentences and a few nonsensical sentences. The plot is ridiculous and Mannering, despite his daring and his athleticism, galumphs idiotically through the story. Some characters are well-drawn while others are mere pasteboard. Worse yet, the killer exposed at the end was basically revealed in the book's jacket copy. Final grade has to be either a C or a C+.
Nonetheless, I'll continue to read Creasey's minor works such as his The Baron series. It's a guilty pleasure.
* There's an apocryphal story about Creasey, who knew next to nothing about the American West, starting one of his western novels with a "coyote soaring overhead." No one has been able to find such a passage among Creasey's 30 westerns, so it either never happened or a sharp-eyed editor caught the flub in manuscript. Either way, it didn't stop Creasey from claiming the tale was true..
** In the US editions, the first eight titles gave Mannering the title "Blue Mask" instead of The Baron. By the ninth volume this seemed sort of silly.