In 1953, the journalist and author Richard Usborne published a seminal book called Clubland Heroes. It was an affectionate, nostalgia-tinged analysis and celebration of the fictional gentleman-adventurers whose exploits had thrilled him when he was a boy, the protagonists of three immensely popular novelists of the inter-war period: John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, ‘Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond and Dornford Yates’s Jonathan Mansel.
These characters had a great deal in common. They all enjoyed substantial private means and were rich enough not to let anything as vulgar as earning a living interfere with their adventuring. They were proudly upper-class and, except in Hannay’s case, Public School and Oxbridge. They had all had damned good wars. They drove Rolls-Royces. They were viscerally racist and anti-Semitic. They believed in rough justice, an eye for a tooth, in stepping in where plodding policemen feared to tread, or were unable to tread because of inferior birth and breeding. They regularly bumped off the villains on the grounds – if they thought about it at all – that they were simply saving the hangman the bother. Crucially, they were all members of London Clubs, those exclusive enclaves in the St. James’s area, where the elite lunched and dined in splendour, wreathed in cigar smoke, waited on by silent, obsequious servants.
But there was another writer, competing in the same market, equally successful, equally adored by generations of school-boys. His name was Leslie Charteris and his hero was
Simon Templar, the Saint.
Usborne does not ignore Charteris and the Saint entirely. He does something rather more disagreeable: he dismisses them both in a few disparaging lines. The Saint, he feels, is a lesser character than Hannay, Drummond and Mansel; Charteris is a lesser writer than Buchan, ‘Sapper’ and Yates. In the strict technical sense, Usborne is right not to include the Saint in his pantheon because Simon Templar would not have been seen dead in one of those stuffy St. James’s clubs. Indeed, throughout the Charteris oeuvre the Saint is devastatingly satirical about the denizens of such places, with their snobbery, prejudices, prudery and superannuated political opinions. (Hannay, Drummond and Mansel were all firmly of the Conservative Right.) But in writing off the Saint as a character and Charteris as a prose stylist, Usborne was wrong.
I first encountered the Saint, as I did the other three, in the 1950s when I was banged up in a prep school in Hertfordshire. Even for that dismal era, the school was a time warp, a little world of its own that would still have been comfortably familiar to Hannay, Drummond and Mansel but which would have excited the Saint’s mockery – and pity for its young inmates.
We were taught to worship Games and (a grimly Protestant) God. In the Cadet Corps we were trained to bayonet the Hun – as per the First World War – rather than the Boche of the Second World War. For competitive events – almost all sporting – the school was divided into sets named after military heroes: Roberts, Kitchener, Haig and Beatty. Our physical horizons were bounded by the red-brick turrets and walls of the school buildings, reminiscent of a Victorian prison, and fenced, gated playing fields and parkland. Beyond lay forbidden territory, strictly out of bounds, inhabited mainly by dangerous ruffians called oiks. Our intellectual horizons were limited to a curriculum designed for a sole purpose: to get one into a decent public school. The food was abominable, the school rules numberless and enforced by the frequent swishing of cane and slipper.
Into this narrow, isolated realm stepped the Saint. He was dashing, debonair, didn’t give a damn about rules and regulations, lived by his own code, went where he wanted to go, did what he wanted to do, leaving policeman and criminal alike gasping in his wake. He didn’t drive a boring, boxy Rolls-Royce; he drove a sleek, superfast Hirondel. He was a citizen of the world, perfectly at home in any great city where, of course, he would know which was the best hotel and the finest restaurant, and where there was always an old friend to lend a hand in his latest endeavour. He was rich, yes, but the money didn’t come from a country estate or a share portfolio: he earned it by creaming off his usual ten per cent of the booty or scooping a reward. He was a free spirit, openminded, without a racist or anti-Semitic bone in his immaculately clothed body. His adventures sprang naturally out of his globe-trotting life, his insatiable curiosity about everything and everybody, his infallible nose for a mystery, his quixotic sense of justice. He was witty. He was clever. He had style, panache. He killed, certainly, but mostly in self-defence, and his preferred modus operandi was to step deftly aside and let dog eat dog. He never displayed the sadistic relish of Bulldog Drummond, the patriotic fervour of Richard Hannay, or the Old Testament righteousness of Jonathan Mansel. Most thrilling of all, perhaps, he lived openly with a woman, Patricia Holm, who was not his wife and whose charms could be only furtively and feverishly imagined.
Although I loved reading about Hannay, Drummond and Mansel, they were, in a sense, only Senior Prefects writ large. They conformed to the rules – indeed, they strictly imposed them on others. They would triumph on the cricket field, the football pitch and in the boxing ring and eventually rise to be Head Boy. The Saint, by contrast, might perhaps win the Poetry Prize but would undoubtedly be expelled. He was completely different. He was a liberator. He pointed a finger, or rather two fingers, with a cigarette held nonchalantly between them, towards a wider, more sophisticated world. He showed that silly or irksome rules could and should be circumvented, pomposity laughed at, an individual path pursued.
So much for the character. What of the literary skills of his creator?
It was only years later, when I had the job of adapting some of the stories for the screen, that I came fully to appreciate what a superb writer Leslie Charteris was. The first task of the adaptor is to analyse the plot. I quickly discovered that in terms of the overall impact of a given story, the plot plays a relatively minor role. Certainly, the plots are well, often brilliantly, constructed, with all the requisite twists and turns and surprises and – most important – a rigorous logic. But the real fascination lies elsewhere: in description, in the development of a particular situation or scene, above all, in dialogue. The prose is spare and sinewy where the pace of the narrative demands it, but where there is space for a pause, Charteris fills it with paragraph after paragraph, sometimes page after page, of highly entertaining, perfectly honed writing, with a lightness of touch and a refined humour worthy of P.G. Wodehouse. (‘By the tum-tum of Tutankhaman!’ the Saint exclaims to Mr Teal in the first story in the present collection. Bertie Wooster himself couldn’t have put it better.)
The dyspeptic critic might dismiss all this as mere padding: Charteris either lacked the powers of invention or was simply too idle to construct an elaborate plot and made up for it by shoving in a lot of extraneous guff. This would be to miss the point completely. The minimisation of plot and maximisation of other elements is the warp and woof of the Charteris style. What other thriller writer would think of (or dare to proceed with) spicing up a murder mystery with satirical verse? And the verse itself is worthy of Ogden Nash:
Trained from an early age to rule
(At that immortal Public School
Whose playing fields have helped to lose
His brains, his wit, his chin, were all
Infinitesimal . . .
So how does Charteris, the prose stylist, measure up to the writers Usborne set above him? Take ‘Sapper’, the nom-deplume of an offi cer-turned-prison governor called H.C. McNeile. His literary skills can most charitably be described as workmanlike. There is none of the verve, vivacity and pure relish for words that you find in Charteris. And the character of Drummond himself verges on the Fascistic. John Buchan is a much better writer, a fine writer in fact, but his plots rely unnervingly on coincidence and his attempts to reproduce the slang of the criminal classes, or even worse of Americans, are embarrassing. Dornford Yates is in a category of his own. He developed a unique style, full of archaisms and purple passages that some admire (I am one of them) and others find ludicrous. His plotting is superb, perhaps because his method was never to know himself, at the end of a day’s writing, what was going to happen next. But he is most definitely an acquired taste.
By any standard, Leslie Charteris is worthy to stand beside Buchan and Yates – and well above ‘Sapper’. And in The Saint and Mr Teal he is on top form. He was twenty-six when he wrote it and it has all the freshness and vigour of an early work. The three stories are exciting, surprising, funny – and great, great fun. The character of the Saint is fully formed, with all the swashbuckling sparkle that kept him alive through the following decades and saw him emerge, in the form of the incomparable Roger Moore, as a globally recognised figure.
In the late 1970s I found myself one day in a remote fishing village on the coast of Brazil. When I told the locals that I was a writer they naturally asked me what I had written. I mentioned various novels and television shows, all of which were met with blank stares. But when I mentioned the Saint faces lit up, recognition was instant. It was smiles and ecstatic cries of ‘El Santo! El Santo!’ all round. The Saint had travelled a long, long way. He is still travelling.
- John Goldsmith