Not so much a forgotten book than an overlooked one, like a tree in a dense forest -- just one of more than 600 novels published by Creasey over his prolific career. To narrow our focus a bit, it is just one of 43 novels about Scotland Yard's Roger "Handsome" West published from 1942 to 1978. Lost in the crowd.
Creasey published a lot of books under his own name, including the Roger West series, but his output was so high he also resorted to 28 pseudonyms. His major output was mystery and detective novels, but he also published a passel of westerns, romances, juveniles, and thrillers, including five books in the legendary Sexton Blake series. In 1937 alone, Creasey published 29 books. He was fast, he was prolific, he was immensely readable and popular. Almost all of his books were good but few were memorable. His best writing, perhaps, was with his series of Commander George Gideon, written under his "J. J. Marric" pseudonym. (One, Gideon's Fire, won an Edgar Award.) You can argue about which series was his next best but I like the Roger west series.
Inspector Roger West has it all. He's good looking (hence his nickname), smart, brave, dedicated. and has a loving family as well as the respect of his colleagues. Despite all this, he is an enigma, a formulaic hero. We know little about him beyond these cardboard cutout characteristics. His cases often uncover major criminal organizations and conspiracies. He started the series as a Scotland Yard Inspector and was eventually promoted to Superintendent. As with many other Creasey novels, the earlier books were often slightly revised for American publication during the Sixties and Seventies. So a title like 1953's Send Inspector West becomes Send Superintendent West in 1976.
The Lancer paperback edition of Sport for Inspector West makes no mention of its earlier publication as Inspector West Kicks Off, nor of any earlier copyright date. This makes it a little off putting for the poor reader as it appears there has been very little revision to the novel. This is in part because the major thrust of the case, an investigation into the wholesale theft of food, takes place during a time of British rationing and exorbitant food prices. The casual reference to a taxi cab being a 1928 model vehicle again places the book jarringly in the past from 1971. Yet no specific timeframe is given for the novel. It could easily be considered an novel set in an alternate existence.
Inspector West Kicks Off was the eighth book in the Roger West series. His two sons were just out of the toddler stage; they would age and mature as the series continued. Again, someone reading this in 1971 after having red a later book in the series, such as 1970's Part for a Policeman, would be confused.
Enough quibbling. On to the plot.
Guy Randall is a printing salesman for an up and coming firm. He has just landed the biggest contract in the firm's history. With the contract in his briefcase, he calls his fiancee to tell her of the good news, and walks home. On the way he is shot and killed and his briefcase taken. Guy Randall bears a remarkable likeness ot Roger West and this has local police confused about a possible motive. After three weeks of tracing Randall's steps and getting no closer to finding his murderer, the case lands in Roger West's lap.
West interviews the fiancee, Sybil Lennox, who is obviously upset and who is just as obviously hiding something. While the fiancee is at work, West goes to her rooming house to interview Sybil's landlady. During the interview, there is a thumping that came from upstairs, in Sybil's room. West accosts a burglar and in a tussle West is knocked down. As the burglar charges down the stairs he is met by Detective-Sergeant Goodwin who had come to deliver a message to West. A gun is pulled and Goodwin is shot in the chest, seriously wounded. West chases the gunman, who runs into traffic and is hit by a car and killed. Back at the rooming house, police pick up a briefcase dropped by the gunman. It's Guy Randall's missing briefcase. A search of Sybil's room finds Randall's printing contract hidden under her mattress.
Meanwhile Sybil leaves work and waits outside the building, not realizing that she is under observation by one of West's men. The policeman notices a suspicious cab driver waiting outside and checking out everything about him. (This is the 1928 taxi I mentioned above.) After a while he signals, and Sybil enters the cab and they drive off. The policeman takes note of the cab and rushes off to telephone the information to headquarters. Before he can get to a phone he bumps into a short, belligerent man who begins accosting and berating him, kicking him in the leg very hard and drawing a crowd. With all the disturbance, it's about fifteen minutes before the call goes through and police begin to look for the cab. By then, it's too late. It turns out that the cab is not registered and there appears to be no way to locate it, its driver, or the girl.
After a number of false starts, West and a contingent of police zero in on an old warehouse where a lot of taxis are stored. There they see the small man who had argued with the policeman. On seeing the police, the man (named Relf) flees to the roof of the warehouse, followed by West and several officers. There is a driving rain that makes navigating the roof very dangerous; as is his wont, West insists on going first if there is any chance of danger to his men. West carefully makes nis way across the roof, trying to avoid Relf's bullets. The building is surrounded and relf has nowhere to go. West sees two dark figures in the rain on the roof of the building next to him and believes them to be police officers blocking that way. The two men begin throwing rocks at Relf, hitting him and knocking him off the roof. Relf breaks his neck in the long fall and is killed instantly. The two men get away in the rain and confusion.
The cabdriver that went off with Sybil is identified as Mike Scott. He was also the man who had run over and killed the gunman who had shot Sergeant Goodwin. The gunman's death was murder then, not an accident. Scott remained missing. Scott's brother, Jeremiah, is a very successful printing salesman from an established rival firm to Guy Randall's. In fact, the large contract that Randall had gotten the day he died was one that Jeremiah Scott held for years. The contract was with a nationwide food processing and delivery company who's president was an old-fashioned tee-totaller; Jeremiah Scott had been drunk at a recent company function and the food processing president in response gave the new contract to Randall instead of Scott. In fact Scott was leaving the president's office just as Randall was entering to get the contract. Jeremiah Scott became high on West's suspect list because of too many coincidences and because of Scott's smarmy, challenging attitude.
It turns out that police have been investigating a large, highly organized, food theft and smuggling ring. Remember this is when rationing ang high food prices existed and there was a great demand on the black market. The food theft was not a penny ante let's swipe a can of kippers from the local grocer type; it was big-league involving many tons of food -- bacon, cheese, canned goods and the like. West's investigations kept coming back to the food company -- Perriman's -- which had given Guy Randall the large printing contract. Certain that someone in the company is involved with the deaths, but not knowing about the large food thefts, West places an undercover man within the company. West's man gets a low-level job that allows him to explore a large area of the the local plant, the he is assigned to take some plant waste to a large fire pit at the edge of the property. Spreading the waste around with a pitchfork, he uncovers a human hand. Digging further he finds other remains of a dismember body and a plaid sports coat. The body parts had been greatly burned and the head was unrecognizable. But the coat resembled that of a missing well-known newspaper reporter.
Shortly after the body was discovered, sixteen of Perriman's large trucks -- each containing tons of food for delivery -- were send out on various routes. All sixteen were hijacked by to men each. It soon became evident that the gang that had killed Randall, Relf, and the burnt man in the firepit were the same ones involved in the food thefts.
In the meantime, what of Sybil? She is being held by Mike Scott and two other men who are trying to find out what she has told West. She insists she has not told him anything but they cannot afford to believe her. Scott and the two men are minor cogs in the operation and have no idea who is behind it, but they get word that things are getting hot and are told to kill Sybil and disappear. The idea is not only to kill Sybil but to frame her for Randall's murder. Sybil is drugged and is staged to become a suicide. The two other men leave by Mike Scott remained when West and his men raid their lair and manage to rescue Sybil. Sybil is then moved to another town and is watched over by West's friend Mark Lessing. Lessing falls for Sybil, not realizing that Sybil is also a suspect. Jeremiah Scott in the meantime is insisting in the most smarmy way possible that his brother is innocent and hires a high-priced lawyer for him. Jeremiah also tells West that Sybil is hiding a lot of secrets and is not the cleancut girl she pretends to be.
The burnt body is shown not be the reporter. Instead, it belongs to a deaf-mute derelict who had hung around the garage where Relf was killed.
West and his men eventually converge on an abandoned labyrinth of a warehouse, finding tons of stolen food. The men at the warehouse try to escape through the maze of rooms. West, leading the charge, fall through a floor and into a tunnel. There are men chasing and trying to shoot the missing reporter. West is going after them when several explosions cause the tunnel to collapse, burying him.
The tunnel, one of many abandoned and closed off sewer lines, leads to one of Perriman's many buildings that are scattered across the country. Digging out the tunnel was a long and involved process, but West is found somewhat the worse for wear. The missing reporter also survived. the massive amounts of food found were not those stolen from Perriman's trucks, but had been stolen and smuggled into england from several European countries.
Someone in the Perriman operation is now surely involved and suspicion now falls on members of the Perriman family. Several members of the family are great football fans and often go to home games of the local football club. What is the connection between football and food theft? And who is that new vendor selling counterfeit programs for each game? And why was his dead body dumped on a highway where police were following a Rolls Royce belonging to of Perriman family?
The entire case is a massive, growing jumble that West must solve and, with the help of his people, he does.
It's a fast-moving book, with unexpected twists and turns, and the reader can easily suspend disbelief. For all his go-get-iveness, West doesn't do much in the book other than take pratfalls and willingly lead the charge into numerous dangers. His minions do most of the work while West posits wrong ideas. For all its faults, it's a darned good and entertaining book, Each of Creasey's series follow a specific proven, workable formula. Few of his books stand out but almost all provide a pleasant way to pass an evening.
By the way, several of Creasey's series have been adapted for British television and others have been filmed. Roger West has only been adapted for a BBC radio program that ran from 1967-1971; I'll have to see if any episodes are available.
The Roger West Series:
- Inspector West Takes Charge, 1942
- Inspector West Leves Town, 1943; also published as Go Away To Murder, 1972
- Inspector West at Home, 1944
- Inspector West Regrets, 1945
- Holiday for Inspector West, 1946
- Battle for Inspector West, 1948
- Triumph for Inspector West, 1948; also published as The Case Against Paul Raeburn, 1958
- Inspector West Kicks Off, 1949; also published as Sport for Inspector West, 1971
- Inspector West Alone, 1950
- Inspector West Cries Wolf, 1950; also published as The Creepers, 1952
- Puzzle for Inspector West, 1951; also published as The Dissemblers, 1967
- A Case for Inspector West, 1951; also published as The Figure in the Dusk, 1952
- The Blind Spot, 1952; also published as Inspector West at Bay, 1954, and The Case of the Acid Throwers, 1955
- A Gun for Inspector West, 1953; also published as Give a Man a Gun, 1954
- Send Inspector West, 1954; also published as Send Superintendent West, 1976
- A Beauty for Inspector West, 1954; also published as The Beauty Queen Killer, 1956, and So Young, So Cold, So Fair, 1958
- Two for Inspector West, 1955; also published as Murder: One, Two, Three, 1960, and Murder Tips the Scales, 1962
- Inspector West Makes Haste, 1955; also published as The Gelignite Gang, 1956, Night of the Watchman, 1966, and Murder Makes Haste, 197?
- A Prince for Inspector West, 1956; also published as Death of an Assassin, 1960
- Parcels for Inspector West, 1956; also published as Death of a Postman, 1957
- Accident for Inspector West, 1957; also published as Hit and Run, 1959
- Find Inspector West, 1957; also published as Trouble at Saxby's, 1959, and Doorway to Death, 1961
- Murder London-New York, 1958
- Strike for Death, 1958; also published as The Killing Strike, 1961
- The Case of the Innocent Victims, 1959
- Death of a Racehorse, 1959
- Murder on the Line, 1960
- Death in Cold Print, 1961
- Policeman's Dread, 1961
- The Scene of the Crime, 1961
- Hang the Little Man, 1963
- Look Three Ways to Murder, 1964
- Murder London-Australia, 1965
- Murder London-South Africa, 1966
- The Executioners, 1967
- So Young to Burn, 1968
- Murder London-Miami, 1969
- Part for a Policeman, 1970
- Alibi, 1971
- A Splinter of Glass, 1972
- Theft of the Magna Carta, 1973
- The Extortioners, 1975
- A Sharp Rise in Crime, 1978