Amazing Stories

LESLIE CHARTERIS’S “AMAZING” SAINT

Figure 1 - The Saint Logo

Figure 1 – The Saint Logo

Next month will mark the eighty-seventh anniversary of the publication (British) of Leslie Charteris’s seminal novel Meet—The Tiger! (Published in 1929 in the US as The Saint Meets the Tiger). According to Wikipedia, it was an immediate commercial success (although it took until 1930 for Charteris to decide to make the character a series character and publish the second book, Enter The Saint, a collection of novellas). Who is The Saint, and why should SF/F types care about him? (I’ll get to the latter answer shortly.)

Short answer: The Saint is Simon Templar, “the Robin Hood of modern crime, the ‘brighter buccaneer,’ etc.,” as described by his creator. We’ll get into more who and what shortly, after I tell you how I, personally, encountered Simon Templar and his cohorts and antagonists—the former numbering Patricia Holm, Hoppy Uniatz the one-time American gangster, Orace the butler and a small cast of men who come and go as the story requires; the latter comprising mostly Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal of Scotland Yard and Inspector John Henry Fernack of the NYPD; other antagonists, like Rayt Marius, also come and go as the story requires. The Saint’s adventures—at first taking place in Britain—range over numerous continents and continued until his creator’s death (and a little while after) in 1993.

Because I read over 1200 words a minute (in fiction; nonfiction takes much longer to read), in the early 1960s I worked my way through the Everett Public Library’s science fiction section (in those days, fantasy was never separated—both kinds of hardcover were marked by the well-known “rocketship in an atom” symbol, a common sticker for public libraries all over the US) in fairly short order. So then I started on Westerns and Mysteries, finishing the Western section much more quickly. (Back then it was unusual for libraries to stock paperbacks as circulating items, and there were fewer hardcover Westerns—fortunately, my father had a good collection.) In the Mystery section I read all the Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton) books, all the Erle Stanley Gardners, the Raymond Chandlers, the Ellery Queens, Fredric Browns (a favourite, because he wrote science fiction!), Rex Stouts, etc., etc. And then (at about age 14) I stumbled upon one—can’t remember exactly which one—of the Saint books, and for whatever reason, I was hooked. In order to understand why I was hooked—and by extension, tens of thousands of other readers worldwide—it will be necessary to explain who Simon Templar was and what he did. (And a bit too much information about my own reading habits, maybe.)

Figure 2 - Leslie Charteris

Figure 2 – Leslie Charteris

One of the reasons I liked Simon Templar is that in many ways I’m extremely old-school when it comes to fiction. (Maybe not as old-school as some people involved in the recent Hugo Award controversies, but still…) I like stories about intelligent people, competent people, doing intelligent and/or exciting things. (And I don’t care whether those people are male/female/other—or even human!—or what their ethnic origin is.) I’m not a big fan of the books where the protagonist navel-gazes for three hundred pages, or whines and bleats about how sad life is. I want men, women or aliens with working brains—even especially overachieving brains and/or secret powers like ESP (which I no longer believe in, except as a fictional device), doing exciting things! I like “end of the world”stories, man (or woman) against the universe, and so on. I’ll even buy things I personally don’t believe in—like gods or demons, spirits or spooks—as dramatic devices, as long as they advance the plot! Well, Charteris’s hero—and all his cohorts—used their brains in these stories! Maybe some of their aims weren’t exactly legal, but hey! plot device, okay? They tried, and dared, and did exciting things… and I was 14 or so. How could I resist? (Figure 3 shows one of the Avon comic magazines. Figure 4 is a detail from that magazine.)

Figure 3 - The Saint Detective Mag 1950

Figure 3 – The Saint Detective Mag 1950

Now, I’m not claiming that all Charteris’s readers were 14, but there sure must have been a lot of us! Before he was through, he had written over ninety Saint-related books, novels, novellas, etc.; and The Saint had appeared in fifteen feature films, eleven radio series, three television series and a comic strip, written by Charteris himself (this information is from http://www.lesliecharteris.com/. (Also, according to Wikipedia, in the late 1940s Charteris and sometime Sherlock Holmes scriptwriter Denis Green wrote a stage play entitled The Saint Misbehaves, although it was never produced.) He had been played in film, radio and TV by approximately 18 different actors, film actors ranging from George Sanders to Val Kilmer (forgettable); and on radio by such actors as Vincent Price and Barry Sullivan. I will speak more about these performances later.

Figure 4 - The Saint in Avon comics

Figure 4 – The Saint in Avon comics

The Saint’s origins (I’m speaking here of his fictional origins and life) are shrouded in mystery; he’s never told anyone where he came from or how he acquired the various skills he uses in daily life; although he smoked from 1929 to somewhere in the mid-1960s, he was in superb physical condition, spending up to an hour a day swimming, exercising with Indian Clubs, as they were then called, and so on. He has a rare sense of balance, and is as flexible as any acrobat; he is a masterful boxer and at some point learned some jiu-jitsu. He speaks several languages like a native, and is at home almost anywhere in the world; he can drive a car like a professional racer, fly a plane like a professional aviator, shoot a pistol or rifle—but prefers, and is extremely adroit with, the ivory-hilted throwing knives he carries strapped to his forearm or ankle (Anna and her sister Belle). He’s also a master of the long and short “con”—thinks that turning the tables on a con artist is a lot of fun, and loves insulting “The Ungodly,” his catch-phrase for underworld characters. He wears bespoke (made specially for him) clothes from Savile Row, and usually drives a red-and-cream-coloured car called a Hirondel (French for “swallow”—the bird, not the action), although there is no such animal in real life. In many of his books and stories, Templar turns the tables on The Ungodly, taking a percentage of the profits for himself, and donating the rest to charity.

In short, Simon Templar (not his real name; he took the name Templar from the Knights Templar when he began his life of contra-crime) is the man’s man and the woman’s man. He’s the man every man wants to be and every woman wants to have. He’s six feet (or sometimes six feet and one inch…) of lean, tanned muscle, with cool blue eyes and black, slicked-back hair (it appears from his early appearances that he is the perfect “sheik” type that Hollywood loved to portray in those days).

Figure 5 - The Saint Detective Magazine Dec, 1956

Figure 5 – The Saint Detective Magazine Dec, 1956

I note that none of these actors that I have seen or heard actually remind me of The Saint. Vincent Price may not have been as typecast as a movie villain when he started playing Templar on the radio, but now, listening to the shows (by the way, you can hear nearly all of them at https://archive.org/details/TheSaintVincentPriceOTR) I can’t see Simon Templar; all I can see is Vincent Price. Unfortunate, because one thing most of the movies have in common is that they downplay Templar as an action hero, the one thing he was created to be. Usually, he’s just sort of a detective. Templar was called “the brighter buccaneer” because he was—at least when he began—a modern-day pirate, or Robin Hood type if you will, even though later, particularly during the Second World War, he worked for the authorities as a legitimate agent. (Also, although he—Templar—was a master of disguise, I think Val Kilmer played a particularly limp version in his movie.) Since I just reread about fifty Saint books and novellas, I think I’m qualified to say that someone needs to do it up right!

Figure 6 - The Saint Mystery Magazine April 1964

Figure 6 – The Saint Mystery Magazine April 1964

That’s all very well; he has been a fun action hero, but what about The Saint and science fiction? In addition to the anti-war book, The Last Hero, in which Simon meets Rayt Marius, who is trying to obtain a new weapon created by a “mad” scientist—who doesn’t care who uses his weapon, the electron cloud, or for what purposes; he feels that science is above all that practical application stuff. The British government also wants control of this horrible weapon (another “weapon to end all wars”—how many of those have we seen over the years in real life?); Templar is determined to keep that weapon off the market and perhaps spare the world from another war—a war that Marius, who has giant holdings in  war-related material, is determined to make happen!

In addition to that book, there is also The Fantastic Saint, from Doubleday Science Fiction, an omnibus still available from Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Fantastic-Saint-Doubleday-Science-Fiction/dp/0385173318), edited by Martin Harry Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh, comprising six fantastical stories, like “The Man Who Liked Ants,” and “The Convenient Monster” (Nessie, maybe). These are some of the things that made The Saint relevant to our genre, and perhaps lifted him up a bit, out of the morass of “gentleman detective” stories that the mystery genre used to be plagued with.

The first few years of Charteris’s Saint stories were, perhaps, a bit too much of their time to be really interesting to today’s readers: so much has changed—both societally and scientifically—since the ‘20s and ‘30s; in some ways some of the attitudes expressed by the author would be anathema today, particularly his treatment of minorities. But Charteris was, himself, a minority figure, born in Singapore of a Chinese physician father and an English mother… I’m guessing he felt the sting of discrimination more than once, when his name was Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin, and before he changed it legally to Charteris. (By the way, I pronounced his name wrongly most of my life; it’s pronounced “charter-iss.”) He also shares, in some ways, in the prevailing masculine views on women—but he also wrote very strong female characters, like Patricia Holm, the Saint’s love and cohort throughout much of his career. And modern readers might find descriptions of his reckless night drives through rural England, where it might take him three hours(!) to drive a hundred miles. Yep, thirty miles per hour is really pushing it! And running boards are funny, too (although I see some SUVs are now including running boards of a type) today, as are the mono- and bi-planes that Simon flew.

But to misquote Little Anthony (in “A Million to One”), “we’ll forgive [him], because we love [him]; and after all is said and done—[he’s] one in a million; a million to one!”

After Charteris hit his stride, so to speak, he began creating characters you could like, like Patricia Holm, Simon’s “girlfriend”; also Hoppy Uniatz, whose first response to any situation was to grab his “Betsy,” or “gat”—but who was happy to leave the actual thinking to Simon, as Hoppy was usually several days behind in comprehension; also Orace the butler, ex-con (or “lag,” as the Brits say), whose expertise in the kitchen was expressed in the saying “Brekfuss narf a minnit,” and who actually could cook the bacon, eggs, kippers and toast almost that quickly. Also, the spearmint-chewing overweight Claud Eustace Teal, who devoted most of his career to trying to catch Templar in the act, and who was doomed to failure. Charteris’s ability to make good characters wasn’t limited to these few, however; the story “The Spanish Cow,” about a woman whom Simon wanted to rob—I’ll not spoil that ending, as it’s a poignant and moving story—on the glitterati circuit, is a real throat-catcher.

I hope you take the time to explore the real Saint, through the books (see Amazon’s Leslie Charteris page at http://www.amazon.com/Leslie-Charteris/e/B001IXMABK/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1440703842&sr=1-2-ent) or the radio shows posted through the link above; or even the TV series (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dmovies-tv&field-keywords=the+saint). I think you’ll find that the Kilmer movie, if that’s all you know of the Saint, didn’t really even scratch the surface!

Note: The Saint Logo is copyrighted, and used under Creative Commons license for review purposes.

Comments on my columns are not only welcome, they’re actively desired. You can comment here, or on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. Don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment; even if we disagree or (more likely) my facts are in error, please say so! My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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4 thoughts on "LESLIE CHARTERIS’S “AMAZING” SAINT"

  1. Darren Slade says:

    Enjoyed this post very much, Steve. I’ve only read the first couple of Saint novels and they were great fun. This piece has reminded me to seek out more.

    1. Thanks, Darren!
      Be sure to check out Amazon.com (or .ca if you’re in Canada); there might also be one or two available on the Gutenberg website. Worth checking out, anyway.

  2. I enjoyed this column even more than usual, Steve. A typically astute and thorough job; thanks for it.

    I’m enough of a Saint fanatic to have borrowed the name of the title character of THE LAST HERO for the protagonist of my own 1982 novel MINDKILLER, and I was granted the honour of contributing a Foreword to the latest reprint of THE SAINT IN LONDON. I own all of the Saint books, and I think i can say with some confidence that if “Templar” was Simon’s assumed rather than real name, as you say, then nobody knows what the real one was. It’s a shame Philip José Farmer never turned his attention to the Saint. Perhaps Simon and Tarzan were related!

    By the way, if you haven’t seen it already, look for the rare 1938 film THE SAINT IN NEW YORK. For my money, Louis Hayward did the best job yet of capturing the essence, the spirit, the flamboyant joie-de-vivre of the Saint. All he lacked was the right accent. I feel Val Kilmer was THE worst, even worse than George Sanders, who was merely wildly miscast.

    After all these decades, I can still quote from memory the song Simon used to sing as he strode through London: “And if red blood runs thin with years/—by God! if I must die—/I’ll kiss red lips, and drink red wine/and let the rest go by, my son/and let the rest go by.”

    Thanks for stirring warm memories, Steve. There are whole scenes from Saint stories I could quote practically verbatim. Charteris knew how to make a boy’s heart pound, at the same time he was paralyzing him with laughter. Not an easy trick. I wish I’d met him; I’d have liked to shake his hand.

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