Tag Archives: Thrillers

Hammer’s “Hound of the Baskervilles”

Very slight spoiler alert, but I suspect most readers will be familiar with the tale – so here goes.

Hammer film’s 1959 film version of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, has all the hallmarks of Hammer productions during its gory days (pun intended!)The Hound of the Baskervilles [Blu-ray]

We watched it again the other day. Like most Hammer productions based on novels, it takes considerable liberties with the plot. That being said, it is terrific fun and has the great merit of really good portrayals of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, with the wonderful Peter Cushing as the detective and Andre Morell as Watson.

Peter Cushing, of course, did another version of this classic “tail” for the BBC several years later – probably the most faithful version yet filmed, actually using real Dartmoor locations. I saw portions of that one being filmed during my Dartmoor rambles at the time.

Apart from a couple of stock-shots, Hammer went nowhere near Dartmoor. Dartmoor in this production comes courtesy of Surrey’s Chobham Common and Frensham Ponds, plus a lot of studio exteriors. None of the locations look much like Dartmoor. But then Hammer’s Dracula film sets probably only bear a passing resemblance to Transylvania.

This Hammer version might be slightly hammy, but is saved by the lead actors, who also include Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, John Le Mesurier (best known as Sergeant Wilson in the classic Dad’s Army) as the butler Barrymore, Ewen Solon as Stapleton and Miles Malleson, doing his familiar doddery old fool act, as Frankland – elevated to a bishopric in this telling.

As with most Hammer films there is a voluptuous leading lady, in this case Marla Landi as Beryl Stapleton. Miss Landi (who went on in real life to marry the baronet Sir Francis Dashwood, descendant of that famous gent in history with Hellfire Club connections), plays the role with her own very strong Italian accent, though her father, Stapleton, is clearly English. And in the film she is Stapleton’s daughter, rather than his wife (posing as a sister) as she does in the book.

Normally I’d quibble a bit at this bit of casting, but Miss Landi is great fun as Baskerville’s femme fatale. And a Hammer film without a bit of sex appeal wouldn’t be a Hammer film.

The film, as I’ve suggested, does take considerable liberties with the plot of the novel: enter a tarantula spider, a ruined abbey, Holmes trapped down a Dartmoor tin mine, ritual sacrifice, Frankland as the collector of butterflies rather than Stapleton, Sir Henry Baskerville with a serious heart condition, a malevolent Miss Stapleton – the list goes on.

But then, if you want a more faithful rendition seek out Peter Cushing’s BBC version. The Hammer version is not one for the Holmesian purist, but if you want a bit of escapist fun then Hammer’s attempt passes an amusing couple of hours.

And the Hammer brand is now in itself iconic. During their heyday they produced great entertainment. This Hound, for all the liberties it takes, does give a real flavour of the book and it probably introduced new readers to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Its absurdities are no worse than those taken in the recent modern day Sherlock and similar re-tellings.

Archive blog: “The Country of the Hound of the Baskervilles” May 2015.

 

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The Third William Quest Novel

I’m now writing the third book featuring my series character William Quest, which hopefully will be out at the end of the year. Quest will find himself a long way from London fighting against new enemies and even greater dangers in York, one of England’s oldest cities.

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York Minster which plays a significant part in the new Quest novel

In the London novels (see below) Quest had the advantage over his enemies of knowing every street and alley. But York is new to him, so he’s disadvantaged from the start. And it is in York’s winding medieval streets and snickets that he faces a particular and menacing foe.

As York is one of our favourite places, I’m very much enjoying setting a book there. It’s a wonderful setting for a mystery adventure.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, do please click on the links. They’re both out in paperback and on the Kindle eBook reader for your smartphone, Kindle or laptop – just download the free app when you order the books. And if you have read the books and enjoyed them, I’d really appreciate it if you would leave a quick review on the Amazon sales pages.

Leaving reviews helps all Indie Authors stay in business and keep writing. 

Please do tell your friends and fellow readers. Word of mouth is the very best form of advertising.

 

 

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‘The Spy’s Wife’ by Reginald Hill

The empty avenue curved away between green-hedged villas, quiet and sinister as an old film set. Then a dog padded purposefully out of a gateway, and a milk-float whined along the gutter.

The Spy’s Wife was published in 1980 as one of Reginald Hill’s stand-alones. Much as I love his acclaimed Dalziel and Pascoe police procedural series, this is one of my favourites among his canon. Throughout his writing career, begun in 1970, Hill was writing stand-alones alongside his series, usually thrillers. In the ’70s and ‘8os, these were often brought out under his pen-name Patrick Ruell, though latterly they’ve been repackaged.

Reginald Hill was a very interesting thriller-writer and if you’ve only read Dalziel and Pascoe, it’s well-worth seeking out these other titles. I think it’s fair to say his early thrillers are less well-known than his detective fiction and later standalones such as his final novel, The Woodcutter. As far as I know, The Spy’s Wife was always published under his real name.

The Spy’s Wife isn’t an easy novel to describe as there’s a great deal to uncover. The title is a conundrum in itself, being both apt and misleading. Set in the 1970s, this is the story of Molly Keatley, a happily-married housewife in her thirties. Her cosy life in Westcliff-on-Sea collapses like a house of cards one morning when her husband Sam returns home for a few minutes and dashes off again. Her next caller informs her that Sam is a Soviet spy and traitor. No spoiler – this comes on the first page.

This is a character-driven narrative and despite a compelling plot, it’s far from your average thriller. Neither can it truly be described as an espionage novel, although an investigator from a shadowy government department – never named as M.I.5 – plays a major role. There’s no tradecraft here. This is about the nature of lies, truth and illusion. The human cost of spying as seen by an outsider.

Molly is a Yorkshire lass who, like many young girls in the Swinging Sixties, left her home town to work amid the beckoning lights of London. In the novel she returns to her ageing parents in Doncaster, where Reginald Hill taught for many years as a college lecturer. His affection for Yorkshire folk with their no nonsense attitude and core of pragmatic, understated stoicism shines through the novel. At times, Molly’s stock of pithy, common sense is reminiscent of a certain Fat Man, beloved of Hill’s fans.

There’s a great deal of reflection, wisdom and humour in this novel. It’s concerned with the accommodations we all must make as we navigate the pot-holes and craters on our path. The choices we make as we try to find the best way to get by in this baffling business we call life. Molly gets to revisit the road not taken and rediscovers an inner strength as she determines to take control of events. A profound and thought-provoking read, within a page-turner of a story that’s tense and unpredictable.

Re-reading The Spy’s Wife after many years, I was so impressed with how well Reginald Hill could write about women. All the more so, as I’ve never enjoyed Ellie Pascoe in the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. My heart always sank when she made an entrance and the titles where she played a major part, such as Arms and the Women were the ones I enjoyed least. To be fair, I think she was all too familiar, just not my type!

Molly Keatley’s ‘voice’ is completely believable. She springs off the page, as do all the characters, particularly Molly’s parents. As I read, I kept thinking what a good television drama this would make. Didn’t get as far as imagining casting. My fantasy casting – a game we often play – mostly involves actors long gone or retired.

The novel’s sense of place is wonderful. When written, of course, Reginald Hill was looking back only a few years and he captured life in the 1970s, over-hung by the Cold War, in evocative detail. I loved every page and despite recalling the main plot points, found it hard to put down.

Fans of Dalziel and Pascoe know Reginald Hill’s writing was intelligent and compassionate. Throughout The Spy’s Wife, there’s an underlying sense of his wisdom and humanity. This is the quality of writing that makes the prejudice against ‘genre’ novels, as opposed to ‘literary’ novels, look ridiculous.

At the time of posting, The Spy’s Wife isn’t out as an ebook and – as far as I know – is only available new from American publishers Felony & Mayhem. I’m greatly indebted to them for several much-wanted British titles which should still be in print in the U.K. (Though I wish they wouldn’t update Golden Age novels to politically correct language). And this time, their jacket copy is a little misleading. The Keatleys live in a suburb of Southend-on-Sea, not London.

 Be prepared to go in a different direction from thriller/espionage labels and The Spy’s Wife is a superb read. Highly recommended.

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The Toff at Butlin’s by John Creasey

John Creasey was a writing phenomenon, one of the most prolific authors of all time, with at least 700 titles published. Creasey was not only prolific, he was fast. He could write two or three full-length novels in a week. To read them, you would never know that they were written at speed. They are quality examples of crime fiction.

Although, Creasey is best known as a crime writer, he also wrote romances, westerns, thrillers – the cross-genre list goes on. As a crime writer, Creasey is up there with the best. Think of his creations; The Baron, The Toff, Gideon of the Yard, Inspector West, the Department Z novels – the list goes on and on.

When I was younger I used to see dozens of Creasey titles on the racks everywhere; in bookshops, railway stalls, newsagents – all with their distinctive covers. He was well regarded in his profession. The Crime Writers’ Association give awards in his honour.

I’ve been meaning to write about Creasey’s books for some time, for he is one of the masters of the craft.

His character the Hon. Richard Rollison, better known as The Toff, made his first appearance in Thriller magazine in 1933, his first book outing Introducing the Toff appearing five years later. There were about 60 Toff books published, Creasey would often write several in a year – four of the titles appeared after the author’s death.

The premise of the Toff is that well-brought up gentleman Rollison goes into the East End of London to fight crime, acquiring a reputation and the nickname. He has a calling card showing a gent complete with top hat and monocle, wearing a bow-tie and sporting a cigarette holder. He has an eye for the ladies and a rather nice flat in Gresham Street in Mayfair.

But really Rollison belongs to what the thriller writer Geoffrey Household called “Class X” – he fits in as well with the slum-dwellers of the East End as he does with posh society.

The trappings of the upper-class are present in these stories, but there is none of the dreadful snobbery you get with writers like Sapper and Wheatley. Rollison is a righter of wrongs, with friends he values right across Britain’s ridiculous class divide.

Like all good crime-fighters, the Toff has a winning supporting cast; there is his “man” Jolly, who puts on a pretence of being thoroughly miserable; Superintendent Bill Brice of Scotland Yard, who doesn’t really approve of Rollison, but welcomes his help; Bill Ebbut, who trains fighters in the East End and provides muscle to the Toff when needed. All of them delightfully drawn by the author.

Now, although I’ve been re-reading the Baron stories by Creasey, I hadn’t read the Toff for many years. Then, browsing in an antiques shop in York, while researching backgrounds for my next William Quest novel, I came across a battered copy of The Toff at Butlin’s. My copy had clearly originated at the Butlin’s Camp at Filey, for it is autographed by many of the redcoats working there during the 1954 season – including at least two who went on to become famous in the UK – the comedian Charlie Drake and the entertainer Eddie Keene, although the story is actually set at a Welsh holiday camp.

Now, for readers outside the UK, Butlin’s was and is a very famous holiday camp enterprise, set up by Billy Butlin in the late 1920s. Holidaymakers, usually on limited incomes, could come to Butlin’s for a fixed fee holiday, which included lots of entertainment provided by the famous redcoats (many British variety stars began their careers as redcoats). It was cheap, but it was very cheerful, for Billy Butlin was the complete showman in every sense of the word.

At some point, and I don’t know quite when it started, Billy Butlin approached several writers asking them to set books in one of his holiday camps. Dennis Wheatley, an arch-snob, famously turned him down. But several rather forgotten writers accepted, and two writers at least who are still highly regarded – John Creasey and Frank Richards, creator of Billy Bunter.

Now, the thought of the Hon. Richard Rollison staying at Butlin’s to investigate the disappearance of a trio of redcoats might seem strange, but it works wonderfully. Mostly, because Rollison is never portrayed as a snob and can mix with anyone.

And, by the 1950s, the Toff is rather hard up, putting out his sleuthing skills for money. He has to pay the bills so, when Billy Butlin (who makes a cameo appearance in the novel) invites him to his holiday camp at Pwllheli to investigate why redcoats keep vanishing, Rollison is quite eager to go – spurred on, it has to be said, by the photograph of a pretty girl on the cover of the Butlin’s brochure. His man, Jolly, thinks it all rather undignified and is outraged at the suggestion, but then, well, they do need the money. Some of the most amusing scenes in the novel explain Jolly’s conversion to the Butlin cause.

But what is the mystery which brings the Toff to Butlin’s? Well, I’m not going into any detail, for this is a wonderfully entertaining novel that you really should read for yourself. Sufficient to say that, along the way, there are robberies, the disposal of stolen goods, murders, and the Toff himself under threat from deadly opponents. And just who can the Toff trust? Not everyone can be trusted.

Never has a holiday camp been so menacing in a work of fiction – or so much fun. And the reaction of the campers when they discover that a celebrity like the Toff is in their midst is wittily drawn.

I would think that Sir Billy Butlin must have thought the book a hoot. It’s certainly as readable and fresh as the day it was written.

I shall certainly re-read the Toff novels as I find them. I know his agent is working very hard to make these titles more widely available. But how lovely it would be to see the paperbacks, with the original cover art, back in the bookshops.

And, I must say, I rather like this idea of setting a crime novel at Butlin’s. Sir Billy Butlin is long gone, but if anyone from Butlin’s would like to offer me a chalet for a week or two, I’ll see what I can do…

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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang by Mike Ripley

Mike Ripley’s new non-fiction book is subtitled “The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed” and it makes for wonderful reading. We’ve both very much enjoyed it and thoroughly recommend it to you. Once you’ve read it right through, you’ll want to dip in and browse again and again.

I think Mr Ripley and I must be of an age, for we both seem to have enjoyed the same British thriller writers in those happy decades, the fifties to the seventies. I suspect we even had the same editions, with covers that were iconic in themselves and which still deluge me with waves of nostalgia when I see them in second-hand bookshops. (We have quite a few on our shelves).

All the great favourites are here; Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Alastair Maclean, Hammond Innes, Jack Higgins, Desmond Bagley – many still fondly remembered, and often re-read by me; plus lots of authors I’d forgotten about but enjoyed at the time. Mr Ripley’s book has made me want to seek out a host of old favourites.

Mr Ripley gives an introductory background on the golden age of the British thriller during this period, which is both witty and perceptive. He examines the indelible influence of the Second World War and Britain’s loss of Empire, weaving a fascinating look at our post-war social history.

He then looks at each author in greater detail with analysis of the giants of the genre and lesser-known writers. Anyone too young to have read these novels as they came out will find this a source of endless inspiration. And there are some fascinating insights into how thriller-writers work. If you aspire to write a thriller, this is a good place to start.

And there’s a splendid foreword by Lee Child, a writer who carries on the great tradition.

Mike Ripley’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a definitive reference book. Superbly researched with affectionate, expert commentary, this is essential reading for anyone who loves the genre.

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‘The Power-House by John Buchan

First serialised in 1913 in Blackwood’s Magazine, The Power-House was published as a book in 1916. At a slim 110 pages, we’d call this a novella if newly published today but at the time of writing, it would have been considered a short novel. The Polygon edition has a very good introduction by Stella Rimington, thriller novelist and a previous Director-General of MI5.  Power House

There’s an interesting dedication to Major-General Sir Francis Lloyd, K.G.B. Buchan ends this by saying: among the many tastes which we share, one is a liking for precipitous yarns. What a lovely description of the kind of thriller Buchan often referred to as his shockers.

The Power-House is the first full-length adventure of Sir Edward Leithen, one of Buchan’s semi-regular series’ characters. (He first appeared in Space, a short story published a year earlier). Ned Leithen is a prosperous Scottish barrister and M.P, living in London, hard-working and unashamedly unadventurous. His daily life is a round of chambers, House, club and flat.

I was a peaceful sedentary man, a lover of a quiet life, with no appetite for perils and commotions.

In many ways he’s a forerunner of Hitchcock’s ordinary chap who gets mixed up in dangerous conspiracies – although Leithen is a gentleman, a pillar of the establishment who mixes in the best circles in London clubland and country estates.

The novel opens with a preface from an editor, a device Buchan sometimes used, presumably to distance author from narrator. The preface states that Leithen recounted the following events during a sporting trip to Scotland. When six male guests settled themselves in the smoking-room for a sleepy evening of talk and tobacco.

The tale is narrated in the first person. As Leithen leaves the House of Commons, Tommy Deloraine, a fellow M.P and old pal, tells him he’s setting off abroad. He’s hot on the trail of a friend who has disappeared after getting mixed up with strange company.

Leithen has a presentiment that trouble’s brewing at home in London and decides to be watchful. Shortly afterwards, he gets his first intimation of what’s going on and the game’s afoot.

Despite being concise in length, I’ve always regarded The Power-House as one of the great London novels. Buchan was the most wonderful writer of landscape, renowned for his lyrical description of wild Scotland but equally skilled at depicting pastoral England or the crowded capital in May.

Out of doors it was jolly spring weather; there was greenery in Parliament Square and bits of gay colour, and a light wind was blowing up from the river.

In thriller-writing it’s customary for atmosphere to be sacrificed to exciting pace. With Buchan, you always get both. He was superb at evoking the dull, secretive grey streets north of Oxford Street in London’s West End. In The Power-House, you can see the seeds of several ideas later used in the Richard Hannay shockers. He returned to this part of London with great effect in The Three Hostages, published in 1924.

One of the greatest scenes in The Power-House features an early example of Buchan’s exciting set-piece chases. A stunning piece of writing, for Buchan understood that peaceful streets and indifferent passers-by can be made far more menacing than the clichéd sinister settings of lesser fiction. I can’t think of a thriller writer better at screwing up tension by juxtaposing ordinary, cheerful detail.

This is also the first time one of Buchan’s lasting themes was introduced – the fragility of civilisation, its thin veneer separating us from world upheaval. We meet the prototype of Buchan’s memorable villains. Always a compelling adversary with a double identity, cultured and welcomed among the highest in society.

It’s worth remembering that the novel would have been thought out against a background of growing unease in Buchan’s political and diplomatic circles. The rise of Kaiser Wilhelm’s sea-power had inspired another great spy novel, Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of The Sands back in 1903. The Power-House is a snapshot of London just as the long Edwardian summer is disappearing. The lights are about to go out.

If Buchan has any flaw, it’s his over-reliance on coincidence but that’s something I’m more than happy to overlook – and all writers need it somewhere. We’re lifelong fans and think him one of Scotland’s finest ever writers. Buchan’s work was strongly influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson which is recommendation enough.

Sir Edward Leithen is perhaps not as famed as Richard Hannay though he features in several more novels and short stories, all of them wonderful. The Power-House is an unmissable first adventure.

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Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

Out of the 1970s came a series of what I call journalist thrillers, written with a considerable realism and usually by writers who’d been reporters. Perhaps the most famous example is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the JackalProduct Details

One of the very best is Gerald Seymour’s Harry’s Game, set mostly in Belfast during the Troubles of the mid 1970s, at a time when the warfare between the British Army,  the security services  and the IRA  was at its height.

Gerald Seymour was a reporter on the streets of Belfast at the time and it shows.

To pull off this sort of gritty realism you really need to have walked those troubled streets and estates of Belfast – the Falls Road, the Shankill, the Ardoyne, the Ballymurphy… Seymour did and you can feel the gripping fear that beset these places at the time in every page of  Harry’s Game – these aren’t experiences that can be faked. You need to have been there.

Interestingly, the violence level in Harry’s Game is not over-excessive. Characters are beaten and shot but it never goes beyond that. Harry’s Game is not as graphically violent as many a more modern thriller.

Gerald Seymour achieves menace by the tenseness of the writing, the dangers of men having to live double lives in hostile environments. Undercover work is rarely as well presented as here.

Harry’s Game begins with the assassination of a British cabinet minister by an IRA gunman, Billy Downes, who after the shooting returns to his home in Belfast. On the direct orders of the Prime Minister, and without telling the army or most of the security services, a section of British Intelligence decides to place an agent in Belfast to discover the identity of the assassin.

They use Harry Brown, an army captain of Irish ancestry, who’s previously lived undercover in the Middle East and had a subsequent breakdown. Harry moves into a boarding house off the Falls Road, posing as a merchant seaman with republican sympathies.

Meanwhile Billy Downes tries to sink back into his former life with his wife and children, though brought out at one point to kill a soldier.

There is a kind of parallel between Harry Brown and Billy Downes. Both work undercover for their respective armies. Both are fearful of discovery. Both are under enormous pressure as the people hunting them down get ever closer. Both are victims of a tragic conflict and are neither good nor bad in themselves.

This very well-crafted book was Gerald Seymour’s first novel, though it doesn’t come over as anything but skilled. For sheer suspense it’s hard to beat. I think it captures Belfast very well at that moment in time. Reading it again, now, and remembering those days, it’s all the more remarkable that, politically, Northern Ireland has moved on so much.

The book’s tragic ending still has the power to shock.

 

 

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The Saint – “Meet the Tiger”

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.Saint Novel.jpg

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?

 

 

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John Buchan’s “The Island of Sheep”

I have over the past couple of years blogged on all of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay thrillers, with the exception of The Island of Sheep (known in some American editions as The Man From the Norlands), published in 1936 and the last pure thriller Buchan wrote before his untimely death in 1940, during his period of office as Governor-General of Canada.

I first read John Buchan when I was in my teens. He remains one of my favourite authors; to my mind nobody quite did what he liked to call ‘shockers’ quite as well. I can well remember my first teenage reading of The Island of Sheep, by candlight in a tent on a camping expedition. The story gripped me then and has since, though I know it almost by heart.

Richard Hannay is the hero of some of Buchan’s finest novels, from The Thirty-Nine Steps, through Greenmantle and Mr Standfast, to The Three Hostages. Rather like its author, the Hannay of The Island of Sheep is growing old. He feels himself to be sluggish, out of sorts, his adventurous past just memories.

Then an incident from his distant past, when he was a mining engineer in South Africa, comes back to haunt him. He recalls a siege against villains, when he came to the assistance of a Norse fortune-seeker called Haraldsen. At its resolution, Haraldsen makes Hannay and his friend Lombard swear an oath to come to the protection of himself and his family should the need ever arise.

A promise forgotten over the decades. Hannay is now a middle-aged country squire, Lombard an overweight and out of condition banker, and the third member of the trio – Peter Pienaar, the Boer hunter who appears in several Buchan novels, killed in the Great War.

Haraldsen is dead too, but his son is alive, being pursued by a gang of blackmailers and extortioners. The younger Haraldsen meets Hannay again in Norfolk, worn out, a man on the run. So Hannay and Lombard – aided by Sandy Arbuthnot, the hero of Greenmantle – find themselves secreting Haraldsen away, first at Hannay’s home in the Cotswolds, and then at Sandy’s home in the Scottish Borders.

Along the way are many adventures, including a magnificent car chase up the Great North Road – perhaps the best car chase in thrillerdom, certainly the best written.

There is another pleasing addition to the gang of allies, Hannay’s son Peter John, a keen naturalist whose knowledge of the ways of wild geese helps to save the day. Peter John is very much a chip off the old block – he is based on Buchan’s own eldest son, who himself wrote splendid memoirs of his life in Scotland and adventures in natural history. Buchan dedicated this book to his son.

After alarms and excursions in the Scottish borders, the action moves to Haraldsen’s home, the Island of Sheep of the title, set in the wild landscapes of the Faeroe Islands, where the action comes to an exciting climax in what can only be described as a Viking ending.

To my mind, no writer comes close to Buchan in describing wild landscapes, whether it be the meadows and woodlands of the Cotswolds, the glens and hillsides of the Scottish Borders, or the windswept islands of the north Atlantic. His knowledge of the land came from his own explorations. He was, for all his life, a great walker and considerable rock climber. He captures the spirit of the place in a way that haunts your mind long after you’ve finished reading one of his books.

I’ve walked many of the landscapes which inspired Buchan. He got them right. He was also a very fine literary artist. Probably one of the best writers who turned his hand to writing thrillers. No matter how many times I read his books, I always want to start again.

If any writer inspired me to write the kind of books I do, it is John Buchan, though I make not the slightest claim to have anything like his great genius for such stories. My own Scottish thriller Balmoral Kill is my own small tribute to this wonderful writer.

It is pleasing to see that Buchan is now taken seriously as a great Scottish novelist, after years of being sidelined and saddled with misconceptions by critics who rarely actually read what he wrote or studied the truth about his life.

The Island of Sheep is a fine conclusion to the Richard Hannay stories.

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Leslie Charteris and the Saint

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.Enter the Saint by [Charteris, Leslie]

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.

 

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