30 May 2024

Creasey’s Characters:
The Toff

The Toff appears in 57 Creasey titles. The Toff is the Honorable Richard Rollison, an upper-class sleuth and caricature “toff” – a derogatory stereotype for British aristocracy. The word “toff” is thought to come from the word “tuft”, which was a gold tassel traditionally worn by titled Oxbridge undergraduates, or possibly from the Anglo-Saxon word “toforan”, meaning “superiority”.

In The Toff, Creasey created a true old-fashioned hero who champions women, rights wrongs, and grits his teeth to overcome impossible odds. The Toff is a well-known man-about-town amateur detective, with his impressive exploits regularly reported in newspapers earning him the respect of the police and – more grudgingly – criminals.

His gloomy manservant, Jolly, is a sort of sleuthing Jeeves. Like Bertie Wooster, The Toff has aunts in abundance – the Edwardian Lady Gloria Hurst, aka “Old Glory”, who runs a sheltered home for women stands out as a particularly fine example. The Toff may be posh, but he is no snob. He is on first name terms with all the top brass in Scotland Yard and even knows many of the coppers on the beat. He’s good friends with Bill Ebbutt, an ex-prizefighter and landlord of the Blue Dog, an East End pub and gymnasium. Ebbutt’s trainee boxers are devoted to the Toff and often act as a private police force.

While the character first appeared at the end of the 1930s, some of the most popular Toff novels are set in the 1950s, which brilliantly embody the highs and lows of the post-war zeitgeist. Creasey’s London captures the impact on the city of the coal-fired power stations and the bustle of the cargo ships crowding the river with cranes working on the wharves in the docklands as it was – smoke black brick, small factories and workshops with their own tall chimneys in cobbled alleyways left over from the city’s Victorian past and the slums and poverty of the post-war capital.

In his books, Creasey is consistently hyper aware of the misery of poverty, the failings of social care and the impact on different communities as Creasey sees and grips the austerity of the 1950s. The Toff first appeared in a story called The Black Circle written for Thriller magazine and was later enlarged to novel length in Introducing the Toff (1938). We meet Richard Rollison after he has left Cambridge University with a personal fortune of half a million pounds and a taste for adventure, which he has recently spent time indulging in the more disreputable parts of cities around the world. Since returning to London, he has become the scourge of the London underworld and a legend in the East End, feared for his ruthlessness and efficiency. But The Toff is vulnerable too – he is accused of murder at one point in Accuse the Toff (1943) which adds an interesting angle to his character.

See the full list of The Toff titles here.