It’s hard to believe that the Saint, Simon Templar, has been entertaining readers for nearly ninety years. Not only in the wonderful books by Leslie Charteris, but in films, on television and radio, and in comic strips.
I’ve read the Saint books now for many years, but had never read Meet the Tiger, his first appearance in print in 1928, written by an author who was only about twenty years of age, as one of a series of thrillers for the publishers Ward Lock.
Meet the Tiger is an astonishingly assured book for such a young author, though Charteris rather frowned on the title in later years, suggesting that the Saint’s real debut should be in the slightly later volume Enter the Saint. The Saint doesn’t even get a credit in the title – the Tiger is the villain – though this omission was corrected in later editions.
You can see why Charteris was unsure. The Saint as portrayed in Meet the Tiger is not quite the Simon Templar we come to know and love in later volumes in the chronicles. He’s not so self-assured, the witty repartee is not, well, so witty , and he’s not so brave. There is a sequence where Templar is lost in some caves when he comes close to panic. But then the Saint of Meet the Tiger is portrayed as a slightly younger man than subsequently.
Charteris seems to have been so unsure with his hero’s first appearance that he left the Saint alone for a couple of years after Meet the Tiger and wrote novels with other heroes. The Saint of Enter the Saint and subsequent books marks the most wonderful readjustment of any other hero in thriller writing.
Meet the Tiger is fast-moving, elegantly written and sows the seeds for a character who was to become one of the icons of thrillerdom and known and adored by millions of readers around the world. Every fan of the Saint should seek out his first appearance.
In this book the Saint is in Devon seeking out a villainous mastermind called The Tiger. All we know at the beginning is that the Tiger is living in the seaside village of Baycombe. We don’t know who he is and neither does the Saint. This is very much a who-is-it rather than a who-dun-it. In typically Saintly fashion, Templar is more interested in laying his hands on the Tiger’s boodle as much as bringing him to justice.
The Saint of this first book has some of the attachments of his later life. He has his manservant, Orace, a wonderful creation who plays a bigger part here than in the subsequent tales where he makes briefer appearances. I’m rather a fan of Orace. A pity in a way that Charteris never used him in quite the same way again.
The book marks the very first appearance of the Saint’s girlfriend Patricia Holm, surely one of the most delightful heroines ever to grace a page of any thriller. In fact, for some long portions of Meet the Tiger she makes much of the running, while the Saint himself is off-page. One of the reasons I love the early Saint books the best is because of the presence of Miss Holm. Saint books without her are never quite the same.
While this early book doesn’t have Templar’s famous police adversary Claud Eustace Teal, it has a kind of first attempt at him in the shape of Inspector Carn. (Interestingly, in his early literary experimentation, Charteris wrote a story with Teal as the hero, before he ever encounters the Saint.)
Meet the Tiger is a tremendously exciting read. Even if you guess who the Tiger is – and I did – there is still another terrific twist in the tale.
I do think Leslie Charteris – a wonderfully creative, witty and innovative writer – was hard on this early appearance of The Saint. For a writer barely out of his teens it’s a remarkably well-written and assured debut. Eventually it re-appeared in a editions with the Saint getting a mention in the title. I’m unclear if Leslie Charteris revised the text at all – perhaps one of my Saintly readers might know?