For various reasons – a long drawn out bout of bronchitis which knocked me offline for a couple of months, followed by the serious need to finish and publish my latest book Angel in Belfast: the 2nd Angel Murphy Thriller – I haven't written this blog for several months.
What seems like a very long time ago (okay – it was February!) I said that my next 'Old Favourites' post would be about the Saint. Leslie Charteris, the author of the amazingly best selling Saint books (I don't have up to date records, but one of my old paperbacks, last republished in 1964, tells me the number was over 22 million then, and counting!) is a very undervalued man. I love his books, and so, obviously, do millions of others. He was a clever man (educated at Oxford) and a clever writer, and he invented a character who will live as long as people enjoy reading.
I had read a few of the later Saint short stories in various magazines before I really began to make his acquaintance. This happened because I'd been taken by a former boyfriend to visit an elderly, retired man– as a sort of good work. The thought was, that he was probably lonely and would enjoy being visited. Well, he did appear to like our company.
This man seemed to me to have the ideal life style. He lived alone, and spent his time visiting the local library, reading the books he'd picked up there, and then going back for more. What bliss! He liked to talk to me about the books he was reading, and on one occasion he pressed upon me a couple of Saint books he wanted to give away (to leave space in his small bungalow for others). I wasn't specially keen on the Saint at that time, but I accepted the books in order not to hurt his feelings.
In fact I quite enjoyed them, and over the years I picked up more than a few second hand, until I had a good representative collection of them.
But it's only in the last dozen years, when I began to order the earlier books from Amazon (also second hand), that my enthusiasm took off.
Here is a character whose roots go back to Robin Hood. More recently, he descends from Raffles (who is mentioned in several of the Saint books) and Bulldog Drummond. He is the archetypal highwayman, pirate or buccaneer. The epitome of the adventurer, the swashbuckling hero, beloved by every schoolboy – and, may I point out, by every schoolgirl!
And as for his influence, that goes on down through James Bond, Modesty Blaise and Lara Croft to my own Angel Murphy!
Amazingly enough, although the Saint has frequently been portrayed on TV and in film, no one has ever come close to really representing the character as he was written. I suppose Roger Moore came closest. But he didn't really look the part – and he was too lacking in that je ne sais quoi, that impudent daring, which epitomises the Saint. Roger Moore played him as too nice. I suppose I'm asking for the impossible. But maybe Martin Kemp?
Recently I watched some of the early black and white Saint films on iPlayer and enjoyed them, but again, none of the actors came near to being the Saint. George Sanders certainly got the character across – but, for goodness sake, Simon's slim leanness is empathised over and over again! Not GeorgeSanders!
But one thing I can thank these black and white films for was the opportunity to watch The Saint Meets The Tiger – the very first Saint full length story. (Alas, the book is out of print now, and is only available second hand for telephone numbers. Much as I'd love to read it, not at several hundred pounds!)
Because it's the very early Saint books which kindled my enthusiasm.
The Last Hero is a brilliant book in every way. So is The Avenging Saint, Enter the Saint, Featuring the Saint and The Saint's Getaway. In these, Simon emerges as a man with vision and ideals, not afraid to fight for the justice he believes in. A man 'born with the sound of trumpets in his ears.'
Leslie Charteris writes in a fine, impressive style. And here may I digress to say that, although I sort of admire Hemingway (my favourite of his books is The Sun Also Rises) I believe he – or actually his admirers – have done an amazing amount of damage to writers of English. The clean, sparse style has something to be said for it, okay. But surely we are missing so much by writing off the more elaborate, poetic style of writing? It's like the difference between the Classic style of architecture and the elaborate Byzantine style. Personally I like both. And why not?
Leslie Charteris is not afraid to be romantic, to portray love as an ideal, to give his hero the sort of feelings, the desire for justice, the desire to right wrongs, which motivated the Knights of the Round Table. Simon says, in The Last Hero, that the last thing he wants is to be delivered from 'battle, murder and sudden death,' for these are the spice of life. He is brave, witty and intelligent, and his adventures show him demonstrating all these characteristics.
Like Modesty Blaise's Willie Garvin, he uses a knife rather than a gun, A knife which he calls Anna and which he wears hidden up one sleeve. This allows him more than once to cut his ropes when the villain has tied him up. However, Chatreris doesn't let this ploy grow stale. Comes a day – quite early on in the Saga – in Enter the Saint, when he is tied up too firmly to get hold of the knife. And then it's left to his wits to save him – which they do.
In these early books Simon is surrounded by some excellent minor characters, and their reality adds a lot to the pleasure. There is Patricia Holm, whom Simon loves, and who is not the typical girlfriend of the time. Bulldog Drummond has a girlfriend (later wife) called Phyllis, who allows him to pat her on the head and say, 'Go to bed, little girl. This is my business!' before dealing with the villains. Patricia would never have let this happen. Simon tells us, in The Avenging Saint, one of the reasons why he loves her. Speaking about Sonia, another girl whom he had found attractive, but who let him get caught by hesitating to shoot at the right moment, he says, 'Pat wouldn't have missed that chance.'
Then there's Roger Conway, the Saint's best friend and lieutenant, whose catch phrase is, 'You can always leave these little things to me,' whether it's rescuing Simon from inevitable death or simply trailing one of the villains. (Simon's own catch phrase at this stage is 'As the actress said to the bishop.' Lines such as, 'I'm always willing to oblige you, as the actress said to the bishop.' Later he dropped this. I suppose by then Charteris thought it was overworked.)
And there's Norman Kent, who also hears the sound of trumpets in his ears at the end of The Last Hero, and lays down his life for the peace of the world. In these early books, the first world war, which was still too close in the recent past to be forgotten, and the threat of the next, loom large.
(I don't know why I keep calling these guys 'the villains.' Charteris's own name for them is 'the ungodly' – a much better way of saying the same thing.)
Alas, as the books move on, Simon's helpers are one by one married or killed off. For a while he has Hoppy Uniatz, not a character I ever took to, and then in the later stories he works on his own. A pity, I think. Patricia Holm fades out, too. I suppose Charteris wanted to keep Simon foot loose and fancy free. Also a pity.
The earlier books are mostly full length, but after the establishment of The Saint Magazine, Charteris wrote a short story for this every month, and these were collected up into books. Some of them were excellent, but writing to a formula never makes for the best work.
In his middle period, Charteris let his delight in style, in playing with words, run riot. In Call For The Saint, for instance, published in 1948, when dealing with a boxing match in The Masked Angel, he uses no less than three expressions for boxing matches or the boxing ring within a few pages – 'the soiree of sock,' the 'mitt minuet,' 'the punch podium.' If he'd been writing now, I wonder if he'd have called his boxer hero 'the Lord of the Ring'? He also makes Simon respond to a cliche with the comment, 'To corn a phrase.' You either love this or hate it. Count me in with the lovers!
Later on, Charteris dropped this style and showed us that he could produce the clean, crisp type of writing as well as anyone. He had, it seems, been widely and destructively criticised for his middle period writing by those who set themselves up as experts, who have little or no sense of humour, and who have no delight in playing with words. What a shame!
I love Leslie Charteris's Saint, and I'm not ashamed to say so!
Meanwhile, if you haven't seen any of my own books, they're growing in number. Starting with Belfast Girls,
the next is Danger Danger,
And then Angel in Flight, my first Angel Murphy Thriller.
I've also had The Seanachie, a collection of short stories, published
and Lady Molly and The Snapper, a young people's book,
before coming up to modern times with the publication of my second Angel Murphy book Angel in Belfast, just the other day.
Why not try some of them, if you haven't already done so? You never know! You might like them!
My next post (which will appear rather more quickly than this one did!) will feature a new discovery, Juliet Madison, and her crime book Second Chances: A DI Frank Lyle mystery. So there's something to look forward to!
Goodbye for now, and God Bless!
Links for my books: