27 May 2024

Creasey’s Characters:
Dr Palfrey

Dr Stanislaus Alexander Palfrey is a renowned physician, specialising in tuberculosis, who is lured into an elite espionage world via an international spy ring called Z-5.

Z-5 is a secret “peace-promoting” organisation tasked with fighting the Axis powers during WW2. Palfrey appears in 34 titles and across the course of the series his story arc is one of personal and professional transformation.

Palfrey is a tall, slight man with rounded shoulders and a vaguely apologetic expression. Through the series he gains confidence and moves up the ranks until he is second-in-command by the end of the war.  He returns to civilian life to resume his work as a doctor after the war, but he is drawn back into action several times. Eventually he returns to Z-5 full-time, now leading the organisation as it fights the newest enemies of freedom and international stability. Although Dr Palfrey is the lead protagonist, the activities of Z-5 are very much a team effort with a compelling ensemble cast of supporting characters.

Palfrey’s adventures take him all over the world from Europe to India, Japan, South America, ‘Rhodesia’ (Zimbabwe), Russia and Australia, and are set between the 1930s and the 1970s.

John Creasey saw numerous perils and threats facing the planet and its people and he used the style of the pulp magazines to explore these ecological and political threats which were making the headlines. He conveyed this in his writing by using a combination of natural phenomena, mad scientists, and international criminal masterminds at war with the forces of good – imagining floods, melting icecaps, blights on crops, mass starvation, parched earth with starving livestock, and disease. He didn’t just suggest these threats of the cataclysms, he actually wrote them, portraying Britain on a number of occasions as practically wiped out. These challenges are heaped upon the world that Palfrey and his team are trying to protect. Palfrey is not only fighting political and social threats, but environmental and public health ones too – which can be uncomfortably relevant today.

Themes are often re-examined throughout these novels, such as the idea of being unable to move or speak – this is caused by a virus carried by mosquitos in The Plague of Silence, and is also a way of controlling humanity created by a mad scientist in The Sleep. Another theme that reappears is the idea of ecological cataclysm, whether it be clouds of pollution descending on cities and suffocating populations in The Smog, alien diseases decimating timber supplies in The Blight, tornados and windstorms in The Whirlwind, or nuclear testing creating global warming in The Drought.

These novels are subversive, challenging mainstream readers to talk about political threats, environmental dangers and social apathy. Creasey is using the genre to encourage popular consciousness in a progressive and prophetic way.

See the full list of Dr Palfrey titles here.

Hodder & Stoughton, 1956.