The Creepers by John Creasey (originally published as Inspector West Cries Wolf, 1950; US publication as The Creepers, 1952)
A fairly early entry into Creasey's Inspector (later Superintendent) Roger "Handsome" West of Scotland Yard, this is the tenth in a series of forty-three novels, and has a different, darker tone than others in the series that I have read. West is married to the lovely Janet and they have two young boys, Martin ("Scoopy") and Richard (called "Fish" in later books). All is not well in the West household. West's marriage is on the verge of breaking up. He has a compulsion to work and to fight crime, and the marriage is suffering for it. Throughout the series, Janet has been an understanding and supportive wife and this turn in her character is jarring, with West coming off as selfish. Unlike the other West novels, this one delves heavily into his personal life and turns his established character on his head. West has been a typical Creasey hero -- tall, strong, intelligent, loyal, willing to take risks, and a loving family man. In The Creepers he comes off poorly.
West's family drama may be the reason this book is longer by a third than others in the series. The story drags along and Creasey's usual fast-paced writing is bogged down, with what should be an interesting crime plot getting lost.
The crime? A massive wave of home break-ins orchestrated by the mysterious "Lobo." Lobo controls a large number of thieves throughout the area, assigning a few at a time to a specific area and arming all of them with knifes. The homes assigned are not wealthy and the take from each break-in is not the greatest, but the cumulative effect adds up to a good bit of change. The thieves are organized in cells and no one knows how many there are nor who Lobo is. Although armed with knifes, the thiefs do not use them (most of their victims are asleep or away) except when an occasional one is caught. A team is usually sent out every few days and not everynight. This gang has proven to be such a nuisance that higher ups in the Yard and in government are insisting on action.
Each gang member has the image of a wolf on his palm.
The inevitable soon happens. A couple is viciously murdered during a robbery and the heat is on for West, who has been put in charge of the case.
One suspected member of the gang has been traced to Morden Lodge, an estate in Hounslow, where he had been working for a wealthy jewel merchant named Paterson. While near the Lodge, West sees a beatuiful woman drive past him. Then a shot. A crash. A tall red-haired man runs from the ditch where he had been hiding. The woman, dazed but unharmed, is Margaret Paterson, daughter of the jewel merchant. Margaret claims to have no idea who the red-headed man is, but she is obviousy lying. Roger accompanies her to the Lodge, where he sees a large skin rug in one of the rooms; it's a wolfskin with a large fanged wolf's head. By the fireplace there is a bar of iron and at one end is an outline of a wolf's head -- exactly the same design as found on the palms of Lobo's henchmen. Margaret is somewhat confused because the house appears empty of servants and her father is not about. Margaret and West go through the house and find that her father's office has been ransacked. A check of the safe indicates that no jewels had been taken.
Paterson arrives home and, seeing that the gems were not taken, makes light of the whole affair. He tells West that all of his male servants were ex-convicts, although none were employed at his place of business. One of these ex-convicts has been found murdered. West also meets Paterson's secretary, a woman with the ominous name of Helen Wolf. Margaret, who had earlier gone to her room to rest, is missing. Her father and Helen Wolf assume she had gone out on the town, something she often does, hitting a few specific nightclubs. Their assuption is right. West's colleague Bill Sloan saw Margaret sneak out of the house and followed her to a local garage where she made arrangements for another car. Sloan tries to talk out of going out alone, fearing that she would come to harm -- well, someone had tried to kill her, didn't they? Margaret poo-poos this and insists on going clubbing. Sloan agrees to go along to protect her. Sloan, by the way, is married with one child and another due in weeks.
At one of the nightclubs they go to, West's wife Janet is there with West's best friend, Mark Lessing. Janet seems to be having a good time. At another cliub, Margaret gets thoroughly snozzled and passes out. Sloan is wondering what to do when West finally catches up with him. They take Margaret to Sloan's place and flop her on the bed. (Mrs. Sloan and child are visiting relatives.) West stays at Sloan's apartment watching over Margaret while Sloan goes to canvas the clubs in search of clue to the redhead's identity, but as he gets into the car, he is attacked from behind, his skull fractured. The attacker is the redheaded man, Alec Magee. Magee takes Sloan's keys and finds Margaret passed out. He rushes to her side, begging her to wake up and professing his deep love for her.
It's all a mish-mash of coincidences and red herrings and domestic turmoil. (Janet's marital dissatisfaction is increased when she fears that West is getting it on with Margaret, and West himself finds Margaret more physically attractive than Janet.) SPOILER ALERT: Somehow everything gets resolved.
I just counted. I've read twenty-five Inspector West novels and thorouoghly enjoyed twenty-four of them. I'll let you guess which one of these is the odd one out.