Over the past few weeks I’ve been re-reading some of the earliest of Leslie Charteris’s stories of Simon Templar – The Saint. Some of the longer novels, such as The Saint Closes the Case (The Last Hero), and the novellas – Charteris preferred the word novelette – as in Enter the Saint, Alias the Saint, The Saint v. Scotland Yard, The Ace of Knaves and The Happy Highwayman.
Now it should be noted that these early Saint stories had many manifestations. Simon Templar appears in novels, novelettes and short stories, and even a comic strip. Many were printed in magazines as long stories before they appeared in print. Some were slightly altered and updated over time, and published Saint books were wont to change their titles.
The Saint made his first appearance in a novel called Meet the Tiger, though Charteris had experimented with other heroes in a few novels before that. Charteris was unhappy with this first appearance and apparently considered Enter the Saint, as the real debut of the character he wrote about from 1928 to the 1980s; though it’s worth noting that many of the books published after 1963 were ghost-written by other authors, under Charteris’s “editorial control”.
Leslie Charteris was born Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin in 1907, and died in Windsor, Berkshire in 1993. He was half Chinese and half English. He spent most of his life in Britain and America, doing a variety of interesting jobs while he struggled to make it as a writer. He’d done about a year at King’s College, Cambridge, before dropping out on the acceptance of his novel. In 1926 he changed his name by deed poll to Leslie Charteris. Legend says that it was in admiration of Colonel Francis Charteris of the Hellfire Club. More prosaically, his daughter Patricia says he found the Charteris in the phone book.
Many people are familiar with the Saint from the television series starring, respectively, Roger Moore, Ian Ogilvy and Simon Dutton. And great fun though these are, the Saint is a rather different character in the early novels. On film the character has been played by George Sanders, Louis Hayward – in my opinion the nearest portrayal to the book character, though Charteris disagreed – and Hugh Sinclair. Vincent Price and Tom Conway played Templar on the radio.
I always think it would be great if the early Saint novels could be filmed in period, in the early 1930s. Personally, I think the earlier Saint books are the best. In later volumes, Templar takes on super-villains, even the Nazis, but in the first books he’s dealing with the underworld of the time – corrupt politicians, warmongers, blackmailers and other assorted nasty crooks.
And there are a whole team of Saint supporters: gentlemen adventurers who work for Templar on an ad hoc basis. He also has a rather dim American gangster assistant, Hoppy Uniatz, a “man” called Orace, and Patricia Holm, his utterly delightful girlfriend, who isn’t afraid to participate in some of his adventures. Sadly, for Patricia Holm fans like me, Charteris dropped her from the series in about 1948. Pity!
This early Saint might be the wisecracking gentleman familiar to TV and film fans, but there is a darker side too. Unlike these popular representations, in the books the Saint doesn’t hesitate to use violence where necessary, he blackmails villains and occasionally murders the wrongdoers he is dealing with. It would be grand to see a Saint played in such a way on the screen.
What is quite stunning about these early Saint stories in the sheer quality of the writing, particularly given that Charteris was only about eighteen when he started to pen them and only in his early twenties when the best stories were written. At times, Charteris can be positively post-modern with his wisecracking hero. In The Saint v. Scotland Yard (originally published as The Holy Terror) Templar remarks to the villain in the first of the three stories that, captured though he is, he positively can’t be killed off at that point as there are still two stories left in the volume! You have to be a very confident young author to get away with that.
These first Saint stories are wonderful escapism, but there is a message there too. The Saint is there to even up the odds, protect the vulnerable, help the poor – most of his ill-gotten gains are given to charity. It’s no wonder critics dubbed Templar “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime”.
If you only know the Saint from the films or TV do seek out the books, especially the early volumes. Entering the thrilling and occasionally dark world of the Saint is vastly entertaining.