(Continued from here.)
With 12 novels, 34 novellas and 95 short stories (collected in 24 volumes), the sheer volume of Leslie Charteris’s work can be daunting.
The best Charteris novel I’ve read is The Saint Plays with Fire (1938). ‘Retired Generals, great financier, and ex-Cabinet Ministers couldn’t conspire to cover up murder: it was one of those things which simply did not happen.’ Thrillers are often thought of as right-wing, pitting square-jawed Englishmen against dastardly foreigners. Charteris was definitely liberal. Here, the Saint fights the Establishment. Charteris suggests that the people who run Britain (and France and Germany) – the politicians, the army, the businessmen – are the enemy of their country’s citizens. Kane Luker (Cain Lucre) owns newspapers and armament factories in all those countries, and tries to start a major European war to line his pockets.
The later short story collections, The Saint in Europe (1953), On the Spanish Main (1955) and Around the World (1956) are great. As the titles suggest, the Saint is a globe-trotter, who finds adventure as far afield as Canada, Haiti, South-east Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Charteris is equally venturesome, and tries something new with almost each story. One story might be a whodunit or an action piece, another is a character piece about the reformation of a spoilt heiress (the delightful “Golden Journey”), the next is a domestic murder drama influenced by Somerset Maugham (“The Pluperfect Lady”), and a fourth puts the Saint in an ethical dilemma. Among the best are “The Rhine Maiden”, in which the Saint deals with a crooked financier on a German train; “The Black Commissar”, set in Jamaica, and which shows the half-Chinese Charteris’s dislike for racism – Simon horrifies a dowager by shaking hands with a black man; and “The Questing Tycoon”, with a respectful treatment of voodoo.
The Best of the Saint (2008), two volumes of short stories, will give you both The Saint in Europe and Around the World, as well as Enter the Saint (1930) and stories from The Saint vs. Scotland Yard (1932), The Saint in London (1934), The Saint Goes On (1934), The Happy Highwayman (1939), Follow the Saint (1939) and The Saint in the Sun (1964).
The earliest Saint stories, written in Charteris’s early twenties, are exuberant but unpolished; although the dialogue is bright and clever, the prose can be luridly purple and the plots are sometimes a confusing blur of gunplay and fast cars. So far, the best of the very early ones is “The Wonderful War”, in which Simon and three friends bring down a Latin American dictatorship. Simon pretends to be a Spanish peon, gets thrown in jail, escapes after months, and takes a bath in the president’s bathroom. Chutzpah!
The TV series (1962-69) featuring Roger Moore (a decade before 007) as “the infamous” Simon Templar is fantastically entertaining – an adventure series with a witty, cosmopolitan tone and the production standards of a movie.
Moore is in his element as the debonair Saint: charming and roguish, with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of menace.
The cast reads like a who’s who of 1960s actors. There are big film stars: Oliver Reed, Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Anthony Quayle. There are stars of Doctor Who, The Avengers, and the James Bond movies: Patrick Troughton, Roger Delgado, Honor Blackman, Nicholas Courtney, Ian Hendry, Jean Marsh, Shirley Eaton and Lois Maxwell. And there are character actors: André Morell, Julian Glover, Warren Mitchell, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Philip Madoc, Judy Parfitt, William Gaunt, Andrew Keir, Nyree Dawn Porter, Peter Wyngarde, Nigel Davenport, Geoffrey Bayldon, Robert Hardy, Peter Bowles, Peter Jeffrey, Michael Gough, Christopher Benjamin, Nigel Stock, and Freddie Jones, to name but a few.
Even the minor episodes are never less than entertaining. There are gritty, film noir episodes: “The Contract”. There are witty episodes, often set on the Riviera: “The Persistent Patriots”, “The Lawless Lady” and “The Spanish Cow”.
Best episodes include:
“The Pearls of Peace” (8 November 1962)
Pearls and girls in Mexico.
“The Element of Doubt” (22 November 1962).
A clever biter-bit story about a crooked defence lawyer in the States.
“The Saint Plays With Fire” (28 November 1963)
This is strong stuff. The political angle of the original is absent; Simon’s enemy are neo-Nazis rather than big business, the army and politicians in cahoots to start a war and take over Europe. From the opening at a Nazi rally in 1960s Britain, there isn’t a single dead minute. Joseph Furst plays Kane Luker; unfortunately, he doesn’t shout “NUZZINK IN ZE VORLD CAN SCHTOP ME NOW!”.
“The Wonderful War” (2 January 1964)
The Saint in the Land of Black Gold! Was this actually filmed in the Middle East? There are Arabian palaces with doorways and pillars; markets with donkeys; townspeople in robes and keffiyeh; helicopters; and camels. The Saint disguises himself as an objectionable American oil millionaire, J. Pierpoint Sykes.
“Sibao” (25 February 1965)
The Saint in the West Indies, in an adventure involving voodoo and murder. This is almost a dry run for Live and Let Die, one of the best 007 movies.
“The Old Treasure Story” (26 August 1965)
Who can resist a story about the lost treasure of Blackbeard?
“Locate and Destroy” (16 December 1966)
Not based on a Charteris story. The Saint in Peru, helping the Israeli secret service bring a Nazi to justice. Enough thrills for a movie.