The Baron and the Missing Old Masters by "Anthony Morton" (John Creasey) (1968)
Of the approximately 560 books that Jpohn Creasey wrote, 49 featured John Mannering, The Baron. The Baron was a legendary jewel thief who later became the owner of Quinn's, London's most exclusive antiques dealer with five branches throughout the world. The manager of Quinn's was Josh Larraby, a reformed felon who is extremely loyal to Mannering. His best friend is a Scotland Yard detective who strongly suspects that Mannering was The Baron, while hoing that is not the case because duty would require him to arrest his friend. Mannering is married to the lovely Lorna, who has stood beside him through his various careers.
For some reason, Lippincott, the U.S. pubisher of the first eight books in the series changed the character from The Baron to Blue Mask. There was a five-year hiatus before The Baron came back (sans Blue Mask) in the U.S. from another publisher.
The Baron was transformed into a British ITC show, running for 30 episodes in 1965 and 1966 and exported to the american ABC network. The Baron was created by Terry Nation, the man who gave us the Daleks, and featured a very different protagonist. Mannering was now a Texan, played by Steve Forrest, who got his nickname from his grandfather's cattle ranch. The small screen Baron was never a criminal; he was a wealthy jet-setter who occasionally worked as an undercover agent for the (fictional) British Diplomatic Service. He was a World War II veteran who was assigned to recover fine arts from the Nazis; after the war he opened a small chain of three antique stores. The television show also dropped his wife -- something fitting for a jet-setter. I imagine these changes left John Creasey laughing all the way to the bank.
The Baron and the Missing Old Masters was the 42nd book in the series. In Mannering's morning mail there was a handwritten letter from an old woman named Eliza Doze. She had come across some old paintings that had belonged to her late husband and was wondering if they were of any value. She did not trust dealers but would trust Mannering because of his reputation as an honest man. Could he possibly come to her home in Nether Wylie to view the pictures?
It happened that one of Quinn's assistants was dating the elder daughter of Colonel /Cunliffe, the master of Nether Manor. From him he learned that Eliza Doze's late husband, a rag-and-bone man, had once sold a painting to a dealer in Salisbury for a few shillings; the dealer then resold the painting for five thousand pounds. Mr. Doze spent the little money he received on drink and vowed never to trust a dealer again. He died, most likely from drink, about ten years before.
Later that day, a dealer in Salisbury called on Mannering, giving his name as Mr. Jenkins. Jenkins said he had a lead on several valuable paintings thart belonged to "an old crone." The woman's granddaughter had snuck Jenkins in to view the paintings while the old lady was away and the paintings looked very nice indeed. If Mannering could come and view the paintings and arrange for their sale, Jenkins would split the profits. After Jenkins left, Josh Larraby said that he had recognized the man as Oliver Fenks, a notorious dealer in forged and stolen paintings. Mannering realized the Jenkins/Fenks somehow knew that Eliza Doze has contacted him and was trying to cut himself in on the paintings and would do his utmost to cheat Mrs. Doze. That evening, Mannering headed to Nether Wylie.
Mannering arrived a little too late. Eliza Doze had been attacked and was on her way to the hospital. Her granddaughter gave him permission to view the paintings, which were in the attic. Also in the attic was a man with a heavy stick who used it on Mannering. While Mannering lay dazed, the man tossed down a number of rolled-up canvases. As he tried to get away, Mannering tripped him, knocking him unconscious. Mannering tied the paintings together and tied up his attacker, whose name accoring to his license, was Harry Anstiss. Once outside, there was a huge explosion and the Doze cottage went up in flames. As the house was burning, a young woman rode up on a horse. She was Joanna Cunliffe, the younger daughter of the Colonel. She invited the granddaughter to stay at Nether Manor. Whe she found that Mannering had captured Anstiss, Joanna became nervous, begging Mannering to let the man go and she would give him a full explation later. Mannering did and recieved an invittion to stay at the manor.
The explanation never came but Mannering learned that Anstiss was employed as a servant to the Manor. It turned out that the Colonel was a collector of fine paintings and that the paintings had recently been stolen and replaced by copies. Then Mannering was attacked by Anstiss and a man named Lobb (who later turns out to be a criminal and the borther-in-law of Jenkins/Fenks). And Joanna was poisoned with morphine and is now in a coma. Did I mention that Joanna is being blackmailed for some reason and is desperate for money? Or that Joanna had been doing her own paintings over the the copies that had replaced the stolen paintings? Or that someone tried to torch Joanna's studio? Or that Jenkins/Fenks and his wife were also dosed with morphine? Or that Mannering was run off the road in an effort to kill him? Or that Mannering found Ansliss's body at the home of the Colonel's sister, along with of the stolen copies, just before that house burned to the ground after an explosion?
It's up to Mannering to follow the clues and ignore the false leads as he tries to unscramble an unsavory Whacka Mole game of missing paintings and missing copies. That is, if he can live long enough.
This is probably the third or fourth Baron novel by Creasey that I've read. Like the others, this one is fast-paced puzzler that gives the reader pleasure for a few hours, making it something far beyond a time-waster. I would place the Baron books just below the author's books featuring Inspector Roger West and Superintendent George Gideon, probably on the same tier as his books about The Toff. I have stated before that Creasey's books can be addictive and are certainly worthwhile checking out.