© Avon Publications
When it comes to Simon Templar, aka the Saint, the heroic crime-fighter created by author Leslie Charteris, most people of my mature vintage think of one man only. Visualising Templar, who’s slightly on the wrong side of the law himself but who’s always on the right side of virtue, we see his immaculate leather shoes filled by the equally immaculate, if rather plastic Roger Moore.
For much of the 1960s, Moore played him in six series and 118 episodes of the TV series The Saint, which was then endlessly repeated on television during my childhood in the 1970s. Moore didn’t always wear a tuxedo and bowtie when he essayed Templar, and he did occasionally have a hair out of place. But Roger Moore in a tuxedo and bowtie without a hair out of place is certainly how the character looks in my imagination.
So closely is Moore associated with the role that it’s easy to forget that other actors played Templar before and after him. Movies about the Saint were made as early as 1938, which saw the release of The Saint in New York starring Louis Hayward. A glut of Saint films followed, with the character played most often – seven times – by the silken-voiced George Sanders. He also appeared on the radio, most notably with Vincent Price filling the role in a show broadcast from 1947 to 1951. Yes, those early adaptations of the Saint featured some sumptuous-sounding actors. If Sanders was silken, Price’s tones were downright velvety.
Nine years after Roger Moore had quit as Templar, an attempt was made to revive the Saint on television with 1978’s Return of the Saint, starring Ian Ogilvy. I like Ogilvy because he appeared in some old British horror movies I’m partial to, including The Sorcerers (1967), Witchfinder General (1968) – which also starred that old radio Saint, Vincent Price – and From Beyond the Grave (1973). And I think it’s sweet that more recently Ogilvy has reinvented himself as a children’s author. But the 1970s TV series was definitely a damp squib. Also unsuccessful was a final 1997 film version, which had Val Kilmer in the title role.
But enough about films, television and radio. What of the fifty-odd books featuring Templar that appeared between 1928 and 1997 and were mainly written by Leslie Charteris? (Later, there were collaborations, including one between Charteris and the science-fiction author Harry Harrison; and after Charteris’s death in 1993, two final books were written by other people.) I’d never read any of those, so for me the print version of the Saint was an unknown quantity.
In 2013, many of the Saint books were republished by Mulholland Books and I recently discovered a batch of them on sale at one of my local bookshops. Keen to sample the literary Simon Templar, I bought The Saint Meets his Match (1931) and the book that inspired the first-ever film version, The Saint in New York (1935).
The Saint Meets his Match does not begin well: “The big car had been sliding through the night like a great black slug with wide, flaming eyes that seared the road and carved a blazing tunnel of light through the darkness under the over-arching trees; and then the eyes were suddenly blinded, and the smooth pace of the slug grew slower and slower until it groped to a shadowy standstill under the hedge.” I find it difficult to envision a slug sliding, or a slug with eyes flaming, or a tunnel of light being carved, or a car groping, or a standstill being shadowy. And to get five such tortured similes in the first sentence of a book is a bit off-putting. However, once Charteris’s prose calms down and the story gets going, what follows is quite engaging.
It sees Templar tangling with a crime gang dramatically known as the Angels of Doom. Then he unexpectedly finds himself allied with the gang’s female mastermind, Jill Trelawney, who with her ‘tawny-golden’ eyes and ‘cornfield gold’ hair is as beautiful as she is clever and dangerous. It transpires that Jill is really using the gang as a means to locate and get revenge on the men she believes were responsible for her father’s death – an Assistant Commissioner of Police who died in despondency and disgrace after being accused of leaking information about police operations to the criminal underworld. Not only is she convinced that her father was framed and the culprits are still at large, but one of them is still operating high in the ranks of Scotland Yard. When on page 81 she identifies the first of them and shoots him dead, it’s clear that she means business.
You don’t have to be a genius to figure out, early on, who the real villain / information-leaker is at Scotland Yard, but the story plays out pleasantly enough. You get languid aristocratic baddies with names like ‘Lord Essenden’ being nefarious in their stately country houses. And taking orders from them and doing their dirty work, you also get stereotypical old-school British hoodlums with names like ‘Pinky Budd’ and ‘Slinky Dyson’ who drop their aitches and say ‘what’ instead of ‘who’ or ‘which’.
Mind you, I suspect that even the most naïve and sheltered of Charteris’s 1930s readers, who might have believed Pinky and Slinky were realistic figures of gritty, cutting-edge crime fiction, would have found the events on page 157 hard to swallow. Here, Templar and Jill are imperilled in a subterranean chamber under Lord Essenden’s mansion that’s rapidly filling with water: “The stream beside the wall had been four feet wide when he had first seen it. Now it was twice that width, and there was a turbulent flurry in its dark waters… And it rose with an appalling speed…” Still, any book that threatens its heroes with death-by-drowning in a flooding underground chamber is okay by me.
What I did find problematic with the book is the fact that Templar seems a bit of a dick. I don’t mean ‘dick’ as in ‘private dick’, i.e. a ‘private eye’. I mean ‘dick’ as in ‘dickhead’, i.e. a ‘knob-end’, ‘arsehole’ and ‘tosser’. Clearly in love with himself, he saunters through the book dispensing hopefully-witty insults and being irritatingly flippant. No doubt Charteris intended him as a buccaneering, laughing-at-danger daredevil, but he just comes across the wrong way. I know Roger Moore played him with a smug insouciance (which was also how he played James Bond later on), but I don’t remember him being as annoying as the literary Saint.
© ITC Entertainment Group / Peter Rodgers Organisation
One character who puts up with a lot of bullshit from Templar is the lugubrious policeman Inspector Claude Eustace Teal, who in the books is both his wary ally and his nemesis – Templar himself is regarded as a criminal and Teal would put the cuffs on him if he got the chance. When they first cross paths here, Templar taunts him by calling him, “Claude Eustace old corpuscle” and demands, “Do you want a tip for the Two Thousand, or have you come to borrow money?” Later, when Templar threatens him, “I shall throw you down the stairs and out into the street with such violence that you will bounce from here to Harrod’s,” you just wish that Teal would turn around and arrest his ass.
At least in The Saint in New York, Templar’s prattish-ness feels less of an issue. Probably this is because he’s in a different milieu, one populated by a meaner breed of villains – Big Apple gangsters who, for example, will kidnap a child and have no qualms about killing her if their demands aren’t met. With them, you can almost forgive Templar his facetiousness. It takes a certain courage to take the piss out of someone who’ll shoot you in the face if they don’t appreciate the joke.
Structurally The Saint in New York isn’t that different from The Saint Meets his Match. Again, there’s a theme of revenge, with Templar aligning himself with an American millionaire who wants to take out the scumbag gangsters who murdered his son. Again, there’s mystery, about who the Mr Big figure pulling the strings of those gangsters really is. And again, you’ll already have a good hunch about who that Mr Big figure is early on in the book. It’s more downbeat, though, with a somewhat melancholy ending. Let’s just say that this time the Saint doesn’t get the girl.
I found the books diverting and, even after eighty years, they stand up reasonably well. That said, I’m in no rush to read another instalment of the Saint’s adventures. I’ve spent enough time in Mr Simon Templar’s company to last me for a while, thank you.
From World Collectors Net