Occasionally a series clicks.
Exotic locales; a cosmopolitan, man of the world attitude; hairsbreadth escapes from death; plenty of good fights; diabolical masterminds and ingenious plots – and a belief in adventure and excitement for their own sake.
For someone who has subconsciously had Hergé’s Tintin as his yardstick since the age of four, The Saint is manna from heaven.
The Saint, for the uncanonised, is Simon Templar, a suave, globe-trotting adventurer and modern Robin Hood – and possibly the coolest fictional character ever.
He travels the world, enjoying the company of beautiful women, and thwarting the ungodly – war profiteers, crooked businessmen, spies, blackmailers, frauds and murderers – and the occasional giant ant.
Not, like James Bond, because his government orders him to, but for the sheer giddy fun of it.
He is, his creator Leslie Charteris wrote,
a rambunctious adventurer … who really believed in the old-fashioned romantic ideals and was prepared to lay everything on the line to bring them to life. A joyous exuberance that could not find its fulfilment in pinball machines and pot. I had what may now seem a mad desire to spread the belief that there were worse, and wickeder, nut cases than Don Quixote.
Even now, half a century later, when I should be old enough to know better, I still cling to that belief. That there will always be a public for the old-style hero, who had a clear idea of justice, and a more than technical approach to love, and the ability to have some fun with his crusades.
The Saint does have fun, and so does the reader of the 37 books published between 1930 and 1963 and the viewer of the screen adaptations, particularly the TV series starring Roger Moore. The younger Saint lives for the sheer joy of living.
He ought never to have been let loose upon this twentieth century. He was upsetting. Far too often, when he spoke, his voice struck disturbing chords in the mind. When you saw him, you looked, instinctively and exasperatedly, for a sword at his side, a feather in his hat, and spurs at his heels. There was a queer keenness in the chiselling of his tanned face, seen in profile—something that can only be described as a swiftness of line about the nose and lips and chin, a swiftness as well set off by the slick sweep of patent-leather hair as by the brim of a filibustering felt hat—a laughing dancing devil of mischief that was never far from the very clear blue eyes, a magnificently medieval flamboyance of manner, an extraordinary vividness and vital challenge about every movement he made, that too clearly had no place in the organization of the century that was afflicted with him. If he had been anyone else, you would have felt that the organization was likely to make life very difficult for him. But he was Simon Templar, the Saint, and so you could only feel that he was likely to make life very difficult for the organization. Wherefore, as a respectable member of the organization, you were liable to object…
He, of all men living, should have known that the age of strange adventures was not past. There were adventures all around, then, as there had been since the beginning of the world; it was a matter for the adventurer, to go out and challenge them. And adventure had never failed Simon Templar—perhaps because he had never doubted it. It might have been luck, or it might have been his own uncanny genius, but at least he knew, whatever it was he had to thank, that whenever and wherever anything was happening, he was there. He had been born to it, the spoilt child of a wild tempestuous Destiny—born for nothing else, it seemed, but to find all the fun in the world.
(The Avenging Saint, 1930)
The nature of the Saint is irrepressible. Even when staring down the barrel of a gun, he makes up limericks about his enemies and gets riotously drunk on language.
Farnberg’s gun levelled accurately at the pit of the Saint’s stomach.
“How did you get here?” he rasped, and the Saint actually simpered.
“Don’t you think I’m a peach?” he said.
The eyes of the other two ranged behind him, to the packing-case that stood against the wall. The lid was open, and it was beautifully empty.
“Of course, I’m not canned,” said the Saint, in his earnestly conversational way. “That’s very important. And I’m full of heroism, but absolutely void of heroin. Perhaps she arrives in the next chapter. You haven’t by any chance got a sister, have you, Jack?”
The Saint of the post-WWII stories and the TV series is older and shrewder, less flippant and more a worldly wise traveller, at ease wherever he goes, from high society to Central American villages, but still with the same hatred of injustice.
On his first appearance, in The Saint Meets the Tiger (1930), we learn that
He had won a gold rush in South Africa and lost his holdings in a poker game twenty-four hours later. He had run guns into China, whiskey into the United States, and perfume into England. He had deserted after a year in the Spanish Foreign Legion. He had worked his passage across the Atlantic as a steward, tramped across America, fought his way across Mexico during a free-for-all revolution, picked up a couple of thousand pounds in the Argentine, and sailed home from Buenos Aires in a millionaire’s suite – to lose nearly all the fruit of his wanderings on Epsom Downs.
His creator led almost as adventurous a life. Charteris, the Singapore-born son of a Chinese doctor and an Englishwoman, travelled three times around the world before he was twelve. He worked as a gold prospector in South-east Asia, fished for pearls, and worked in a tin mine in Malaya, while he was a bartender and a bus driver in the UK, played bridge professionally and toured England with a carnival. Once he had made his name as a writer, he headed to Hollywood, while in later life, he and his fourth wife moved around the Caribbean.
Charteris believed that life should be a swashbuckling adventure, and detested both the dreary, mundane 9-to-5 grind, with its ‘routine office hours’ and ‘ranks of honest, hard-working, conformist, God-fearing pillars of the community’, and highbrow, introspective novelists.
‘I’m mad enough to believe in romance,’ Charteris said in a 1935 BBC radio interview. ‘And I’m sick and tired of this age – tired of the miserable little mildewed things that people racked their brains about, and wrote books about, and called life. I wanted something more elementary and honest – battle, murder, sudden death, with plenty of good beer and damsels in distress, and a complete callousness about blipping the ungodly over the beezer. It mayn’t be life as we know it, but it ought to be.’
His first heroes were ‘the Knights of the Round Table – the Chevalier Bayard, Roland and Oliver, D’Artagnan as interpreted by Douglas Fairbanks’. He wrote episodes of the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes radio series, the same series for which Anthony Boucher would later write. He dedicated The Saint’s Getaway (1932) to his friend P.G. Wodehouse.
Oh, and he admired G.K. Chesterton.
He chose a Father Brown story for the MWA treasury Murder by Experts (1947). References to the creator of Father Brown abound in the Saint stories, from “The Man Who Could Not Die” and “The Covetous Headsman” to a pastiche of Chesterton, complete with Indian mystic, light and colour, in “The Arrow of God”. (Is there a more Chestertonian title?)
Would it surprise anyone to learn that, in that same story, Charteris calls John Dickson Carr a ‘genius’?