Featuring the Saint

(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 beSaint Plays with Fire.jpgst 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.

Saint Around the WorldThe 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.

Best of the Saint.jpgThe 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!

Moore Saint gif.gifThe 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.




The Infamous…

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.

SaintLogoThe 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.

Moore Saint

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.

Charteris & MooreHis 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.’

Hear, hear!

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’?

The Grandest Game in the World

I have been improving my mind with sensational fiction for twenty-odd years. I started with Sherlock Holmes, as a lot of people do, at the age of ten; went on to Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton, and later to John Dickson Carr. I came to Doyle and Christie from Tintin and Doctor Who (set in China, Mexico or Tibet as much as in outer space), at a time when I was reading Gerald Durrell.

I liked adventure stories that were set in other places and increased my knowledge of the world.

That, to me, was one of the great appeals of the detective story.

There was a bizarre crime, a clever detective who said things like ‘The game is afoot!’ or ‘Six hours in the spiritual abyss, and all because I never thought of the dentist!’, and a surprise solution; they were set in exotic places, or described life in different settings; and there was a gripping story.

And, of course (this is very important and very easy to forget) they were fun to read.

So, of course, when I was eleven, The Big Four was one of my favourite Agatha Christies. Christie BIg 4This is the one in which Hercule Poirot stops a Chinese mandarin, an American millionaire, a mad French woman scientist and “the Destroyer” from taking over the world. There are lots of good murders, narrow escapes from death, and globe-trotting.

(At that age, I also liked Biggles Hits the Trail, about death rays and giant centipedes in Tibet  – which must make me one of the few kids of the ’90s to have read W.E. Johns!)

As a teenager, I read a lot of fair play puzzle plot detective stories. Later, I read a lot of English humdrum mysteries. I’ve drifted in and out of detective stories for the last few years.

“In discussing ’em, gentlemen, I am not going to start an argument by attempting to lay down rules. I mean to speak solely of personal tastes and preferences. We can tamper with Kipling thus: ‘There are nine and sixty ways to construct a murder maze, and every single one of them is right.’ Now, if I said that to me every single one of them was equally interesting, then I should be – to put the matter as civilly as Carr 3 Coffinspossible – a cockeyed liar.”

So why do I like detective stories, and what do I like about them?

“I like my murders to be frequent, gory, and grotesque. I like some vividness of color and imagination flashing out of my plot, since I cannot find a story enthralling solely on the grounds that it sounds as though it might really have happened. All these things, I admit, are happy, cheerful, rational prejudices, and entail no criticism of more tepid (or more able) work.  I do not care to hear the hum of everyday life; I much prefer to hear the chuckle of the great Hanaud or the deadly bells of Fenchurch St Paul.”
(John Dickson Carr, The Three Coffins)

I like surprise solutions. I want to be fooled – not just mildly surprised, but floored. As Chesterton wrote: “The detective story differs from every other story in this: that the reader is only happy if he feels a fool… The essence of a mystery story is that we are suddenly confronted with a truth which we have never suspected and yet can see to be true.”

A Chesterton Father Browngood detective story should give me the same feeling of amazement and disbelief that a magic show does. When I see a woman levitated to the ceiling or sawed in half, I’m sitting on the edge of my seat, and my jaw’s somewhere around my ankles. That’s what I want from a detective story. I want to shout “WHAT?!” and burst into applause.

I want the same stupefied joy I got from Ellery Queen’s Tragedy of X, Anthony Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case, Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express, Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel, or from Chesterton’s own Father Brown stories.  Read “The Mirror of the Magistrate”, “The Sign of the Broken Sword” or “The Dagger with Wings”, for choice.

And the complete works of John Dickson Carr. When the solution hinges on the audacious premise that the murderer has no legs;Carr Unicorn Murders when Sir Henry Merrivale’s arithmetic proves that there are Nine—and Death Makes Ten; when Dr Gideon Fell explains the true meaning of the “Hollow Man” and the three coffins in Transylvania, all I can do is gape in astonishment – and heartily applaud. (Hell, even H.M. sticking his head out of a car in the middle of a French swamp in The Unicorn Murders is cause for celebration.)  In these books, and in a score or so of others – including The Plague Court Murders, The Red Widow Murders, The Unicorn Murders, Death in Five Boxes, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Emperor’s Snuffbox, The Reader is Warned and The Nine Wrong Answers – the solution is one that I never considered, but which is both breathtakingly simple and obvious – once I know.

The whole point, of course, is that I don’t know. If I read the book again, I should be able to spot all the clues I missed. But I shouldn’t spot them the first time I read the book. I should be led by the nose up the garden path.

A good detective story is also a good story. Look at Sherlock Holmes. Despite the great detective’s objections, the stories are not coldly clinical descriptions of bravura displays of reasoning. They’re adventure stories.

Hansom cabs hurtle through the foggy London streets. American gangsters chalk dancing men on the sunHolmes Speckled Banddial and send orange pips to their victims. A whistle is heard in the night, and a swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India, slithers down the bell pull onto the bed where a young woman is sleeping. European confidence tricksters add beautiful women to their collections. South American dictators are hiding in the depths of the English countryside. Bonhomous blackmailers with the cold, unblinking eyes of the snakes in the reptile house at London Zoo stalk London society. African ordeal poisons conjure up the most terrifying, phantasmagorical visions and drive men mad.

Unrecorded cases smack of the grotesque, with “some underlying suggestion of the tragic and the terrible”. Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duelist, was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science.  The repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby the banker.  The Addleton tragedy and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow.  The cutter Alicia, which sailed one morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged, nor was anything further ever heard of herself and her crew.  The shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland, which nearly cost Holmes and Watson both their lives.  The dreadful business of the Abernetty family, and the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.  And, of course, the giant rat of Sumatra.

And what does Holmes do when the world thinks him dead at the foot of the thundering Reichenbach Falls? He goes to two countries closed to Westerners. He spends two years in Tibet, disguised as a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson; and, following in the footsteps of Johann Burckhardt and Sir Richard Burton, becomes one of the few non-Muslims to visit Mecca. He also goes to Persia and visits the Khalifa at Khartoum.

That love of travel, that interest in the world, is one of the distinguishing features of the detective story. The detective story is cosmopolitan. It says that the world is a big place, full of adventure and mystery, that the world can be experienced, and that people can use their brains to solve mysteries.

Agatha Christie lived half her life on archaeological digs in the Middle East, achieving her Christie Murder in Mesopotamialifelong dream of travel. Two of her most famous books are set in Egypt and the Balkans, while the Mr Quin short stories and The Labours of Hercules are set on the Continent.

Father Brown travelled to South America, the United States, France, Germany and Italy – where he solved such black businesses as the fantastic duel of Dr Hirsch, the garden where died the man with two heads, and the curse of the monkey’s tail.

John Dickson Carr believed wholeheartedly in “Adventure in the Grand Manner” in the style of Dumas, Stevenson and Doyle, and was disappointed he couldn’t find it in the world after WWII. His heroes are men of the world – writers, historians, journalists – who know their way around Europe and the States. He detested realistic and naturalistic novels which “claim to depict life as it is” – particularly those of such Modernist idols as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Proust and Joyce. They were cynical, depressing and unimaginative, and dealt only with the mundane and the banal.

Leslie Charteris said much the same thing in his Saint stories.  I’m reading my fifth Saint book in a row, having joined Simon Templar Around the World, in Europe, on the Spanish Main, and now Under the Sun. 

“I’m mad enough to believe in romance. 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.”

The detective story, at its best, celebrates curiosity, open-mindedness, tolerance and an interest in the world. Detective writers are intellectual in the best sense – not abstract theoreticians, but cultured and cosmopolitan, shrewdly observant and worldly, and interested in their fellow human beings.

A.E.W.Afrique en avion.jpg Mason’s sophisticated Hanaud thrillers are set on the Riviera and in the vineyards of the Gironde. Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley is in Greece when a crazed archaeologist tries to re-enact the Mysteries of Eleusis, and in the Canary Islands when a modern victim joins the mummified kings in a mountainside cave. Elspeth Huxley’s four detective stories take the reader to East Africa in the 1930s and ’60s. C. Daly King’s Obelists books show what it was like to travel by steamship, train and aeroplane across America. S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen show New York in the Jazz Age.

Ngaio Marsh, Helen McCloy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen and Nicholas Blake set their detective stories in the world of theatres, museums, art galleries and artists, writers, poets and publishers.

Philo Vance, in the twelve novels by S.S. Van Dine, is a polymath and an aesthete. “He had reconnoitered the whole field of cultural endeavour. He had courses in the history of religions, the Greek classics, biology, civics and political economy, philosophy, Philo Vanceanthropology, literature, theoretical and experimental psychology, and ancient and modern languages. But it was, I think, his courses under Münsterberg and William James that interested him the most.”

Vance is a connoisseur of art – “not art in its narrow, personal aspects, but in its broader, more universal significance. And art was not only his dominating interest, but his chief diversion. He was something of an authority on Japanese and Chinese prints; he knew tapestries and ceramics; and once I heard him give an impromptu causerie to a few guests on Tanagra figurines…”

“His apartment in East 38th Street … was filled, but not crowded, with rare specimens of oriental and occidental, ancient and modern art. His paintings ranged from the Italian primitives to Cézanne and Matisse; and among his collection of original drawings were works as widely separated as those of Michelangelo and Picasso. Vance’s Chinese prints constituted one of the finest private collections in this country. They included beautiful examples of the work of Ririomin, Rianchu, Jinkomin, Kakei and Mokkei….

“Vance’s catholicity of taste in art was remarkable. His collection was as varied as that of a museum. It embraced a black-figured amphora by Amasis, a proto-Corinthian vase in the Ægean style, Koubatcha and Rhodian plates, Athenian pottery, a sixteenth-century Italian holy-water stoup of rock crystal, pewter of the Tudor period (several pieces bearing the double-rose hall-mark), a bronze plaque by Cellini, a triptych of Limoges enamel, a Spanish retable of an altar-piece by Vallfogona, several Etruscan bronzes, an Indian Greco Buddhist, a statuette of the Goddess Kuan Yin from the Ming Dynasty, a number of very fine Renaissance wood-cuts, and several specimens of Byzantine, Carolingian and early French ivory carvings.

“His Egyptian treasures included a gold jug from Zakazik, a statuette of the Lady Nai (as lovely as the one in the Louvre), two beautifully carved steles of the First Theban Age, various small sculptures comprising rare representations of Hapi and Amset, and several Arrentine bowls carved with Kalathiskos dancers. On top of one of his embayed Jacobean book cases in the library, where most of his modern paintings and drawings were hung, was a fascinating group of African sculpture—ceremonial masks and statuette-fetishes from French Guinea, the Sudan, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and the Congo.”

Vance is an amateur psychologist, “gifted with an instinctively accurate judgement of people, and his study and reading had co-ordinated and rationalized this gift to an amazing extent”. He is fluent in several languages, including French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, Arabic and Ancient Egyptian. He is, in addition, an expert fencer, golfer, archer, poker and chess player, a keen marksman, and musician. “He went occasionally to the more modern operas, and was a regular subscriber to the symphony concerts and chamber-music recitals.”

Be still, my beating heart.

I’ve always wanted to live in one of those houses in early 20th century adventure stories (Tintin, Blake and Mortimer) with a private art collection, full of objects from around the world – Tibetan masks, totem poles, African fetishes, Chinese vases and jade horses, Maya stelae, and Egyptian sarcophagi.  And, of course, jivaro tsantas!  (Shrunken heads to the uninitiated.)  They had several at a château outside Brussels I visited as a kid, and I thought they were awesome.

H.C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune, scientific adviser to Scotland Yard, is the supreme generalist. “It is his opinion that the specialist is inevitably a rather absurd and unhappy person, doomed to narrow thought and incomplete appreciation of the world. In pensive Bailey Mr Fortunemoments he will mourn the fate which made him one. But against specialization he has steadily protected himself, keeping touch with all kinds of knowledge and everything which the natural man enjoys.”

“The modern specialization which exalts criminology into a separate science he smiles at as a pedantic and delusive arrangement. All the sciences from astronomical physics to palæobotany, he will maintain, are required in criminal investigation, and in addition every other department of human knowledge, millinery or mountaineering, from the garden of Eden to Russian films. The real specialist in criminology would be omniscient.”

Fortune is civilized, and delights in nature, food, music and poetry. The stories in which he appears appeal to the senses; they dwell long and lovingly over light and color. The descriptions of the Alpenglühen in Shadow on the Wall are particularly fine.  Fortune and French policeman Dubois talk of pictures and music, of poetry and sculpture – “a lesson in the art of life”. He listens with pleasure to Rossini (who would appeal to his gourmet hedonism); he makes a marionette play of Tannhäuser; and goes into raptures over Swiss hazel ices and cakes made with saffron and filled with clotted cream and fresh berries.

Many detective writers had progressive views. S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Anthony Boucher, Helen McCloy and Stuart Palmer were (as Mike Grost discusses) American liberals, committed to civil rights. In Britain, G.D.H. and M. Cole were prominent British Socialists; their detective stories deal with white collar crime, Fascism and Communism, factories, and profiteers. Bailey was probably a Socialist; his works side with the working class against the Establishment; politicians, businessmen and the aristocracy use blackmail, drugs, slander and vice to destroy their rivals; while the police are often agents of officialdom and the ruling classes. Nicholas Blake (C. Day-Lewis) was a Communist in his youth. E.R. Punshon denounced Fascism and the Nazi treatment of the Jews as early as 1933.

And, finally, the detective story is Protean.  So long as there’s a murder and a fairly clued solution, it can do anything.  Do you want literate comedies of manners or wild tales of skulduggery among mad Scottish lairds or vanishing horses in the middle of the Amazon?  Do you want a sober look at life in a lawyer’s office c. 1950?  Do you want a tale of nail-biting suspense, a drunken screwball comedy, a swashbuckling Satanic adventure in the court of Charles II, a ghost story, a science fiction story set in an over-crowded world of claustrophobes, or a psychological study of unpleasant people being nasty to each other in suburbia (why would you, but it’s there)?

Or do you simply want a good, baffling problem, with a dozen or so well drawn characters, a plot that twists and turns like an anaconda having an epileptic fit, clues that mean nothing to you and everything to the detective, and a couple of chapters that’ll leave you reeling as though you’d just done five rounds in the ring with the Chicago Kid?

Then look no further than a detective story.