‘Sanctity does have its rewards.’
Whenever I think of the Saint, I can’t help but remember those magical Saturday mornings of my adolescence. In the early sixties, one of the highlights of my week was a Saturday morning visit to Stringers Book Exchange, in the bustling Kirkgate Market in Leeds. I would wander down the aisles listening to the stall holders shouting out their sales pitches for housewares and bolts of cloth, assailed on all sides by the smells of slightly rotten fruit and vegetables, perhaps stopping to pick up the latest Record Song Book or Melody Maker at the news stand, then I would wander on past the glistening slabs of marbled red meat displayed on the butchers’ stalls, and finally get to Stringers, where box after box of paperback books lay spread out on the trestle tables.
The system was simple: Whatever you bought, you could bring back when you had finished it and get half the price you paid for it against a new purchase. Even back then, I liked to hang on to most of the books I bought, so I don’t think I took full advantage of the exchange feature. I was usually on the lookout for anything exciting – horror stories, spy stories, science fiction and crime thrillers, mostly. One of my favourites was the Saint. My eagle eye was always scanning the stacks for the stick figure with the halo, and I’m quite certain that The Saint Steps In was among one of the many Leslie Charteris books I bought there and didn’t take back to exchange.
For me, the Saint beats his countless competitors – the Toff, the Baron, Sexton Blake, Bulldog Drummond et al –hands down, and he has remained one of the most enduring and best loved figures in popular culture. I wish I still had my tattered old Saint paperback collection today, but after so many years and so many moves, covering two continents, it’s a wonder I have anything left from those days at all. But now, after so many years out of print, when they were available only in obscure omnibus editions, and practically impossible to find at even the most accommodating of second-handbook shops, it’s good to have the whole series coming back in handsome and accessible paperback editions. At last, the Saint receives his due.
Many people will remember the TV series, starring Roger Moore, which aired from 1962 to 1969. Good as the series was, and terrific as Sir Roger was in the title role, which fit him far more comfortably than did James Bond, there remains a huge difference between the TV Saint and the character in the books. Though most of the early black and white episodes were based on Charteris’ stories, they were adapted by a number of different screen writers and, as happens in the world of TV, often ended up being changed beyond recognition. The later, colour episodes were almost all based on original scripts, and though the Saint remained elegantly roguish and debonair throughout, he lacked some of the rougher and more foolhardy edges his character demonstrated in the books.
The Saint in the books is much more violent, for example. In The Saint Steps In, Simon Templar is quite happy to keep on beating a man to a pulp, and perhaps even to pour boiling water and nitric acid over his feet, to get information, but we are given to believe that he only does that to people he knows would do the same to him! And he swears like a trooper. Charteris never gives us the actual words, of course, but his description of the string of expletives Templar unleashes when he loses a suspect is unmistakable. There was definitely a whiff of the London underworld about Simon Templar when he first emerged in the late 1920s, along with that ‘faint hint of mockery behind his clear blue eyes,’ and it stays with him throughout the series, despite the veneer of civilisation and the expensive tastes. Though he is on the side of the law, he isn’t above bending it to suit his own particular sense of justice, and while he might have played Robin Hood on occasion, his lifestyle is certainly lavish, to say the least!
Though television may capture some of the witty banter of Charteris’ dialogue, it cannot reproduce the energy and playfulness of his use of language in general. He clearly loved words, loved puns, alliteration and metaphors, and his books are peppered with them. A lunch at the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar, for example, becomes, ‘He was driven by pangs of purely prosaic hunger to the Oyster Bar, where he took his time over the massacre of several inoffensive molluscs.’ As teenagers, we used to repeat these phrases to one another, and they never failed to provoke howls of laughter.
Leslie Charteris moved to the USA in 1932. His first book to be set there was The Saint in New York (1935), which was followed by a number of European adventures before he returned to the USA for The Saint in Miami (1940), then The Saint Goes West (1942), which immediately precedes The Saint Steps In, which finds him moving between Washington DC, New York and Stamford, Connecticut. The book was originally serialised in Liberty Magazine in 1942, and published in volume form a year later by Hodder in the UK.
The plot, such as it is, wouldn’t be out of place in an Alfred Hitchcock movie: North by Northwest, for example. A beautiful but straitlaced and enigmatic young woman called
Madeline Gray comes to ask for Simon Templar’s help when she receives a threatening note. It appears that her father has invented a form of synthetic rubber that would be useful for the war effort – not to mention immensely profitable to whoever possesses it after the war – and she wants to make sure it ends up in the right hands. The formula becomes what Hitchcock called the ‘McGuffin,’ the highly sought after documents or plans that set the events of the plot in motion. Everybody wants them, but we don’t always know why, or even what they are. Soon, Templar gets a threatening note too, and then there is a scuffle in the street when it appears that someone is trying to abduct Madeline. When Templar and Madeline get to Stamford, they find that her father is missing, and then the plot thickens . . .
In contrast to Madeline Gray, we also meet the rather less wholesome Andrea Quennel, who has ‘the build and beauty and colouring that Wagner was probably dreaming of before the divas took over.’ Charteris clearly enjoyed writing his descriptions of Andrea, especially her clothes, and this is where he gets to show off his love of metaphor to best advantage. ‘She wore a soft creamy sweater that clung like suds to every curve of her upper sculpture, and her lips were full and inviting.’ Charteris also has an eye for the nuances. Later in the book, Andrea wears a kind of dress that ‘would get by anywhere between a ballroom and a boudoir and still always have a faint air of belonging somewhere else.’ Throughout the book, Andrea offers the Saint anything he wants, and Madeline withholds herself.
By the time of the events recounted in The Saint Steps In (1943), Simon Templar is ruing the fact that he is now far more widely known than he used to be. This he blames on the war. Instead of donning a military uniform in order to serve the Allies against the Axis powers, he has so far worked mostly behind the scenes, and has had to forge working relationships with government departments and security agencies he would once have shied away from. His new-found fame doesn’t seem to do him much harm, although he laments being ‘almost legal,’ as he still manages to carry on much as he likes. The only difference is that now he does it with the cooperation of the authorities. In The Saint Steps In, he even works with the F.B.I. How ironic Inspector Teal would find that!
The presence of the war permeates The Saint Steps In, even from a distance, holding it together and providing some of its more serious moments, as when Templar contrasts the peace and beauty of New England with the distant horrors of war, the slaughter going on in Europe and the Far East. As he puts it, with characteristic understatement, ‘all that the paranoia of an unsuccessful house-painter was trying to destroy.’ Templar also becomes quite eloquent in an argument towards the end of the book, when he argues that most Americans only perceive the war as a distant event that doesn’t impinge too much on their daily lives because they haven’t felt its effects at first hand, as London did in the blitz. One wonders here where Charteris’ voice ends and Templar’s begins.
Like most of the Saint stories, The Saint Steps In is a novel of adventure, mixing mystery and suspense with a fair amount of action and snappy dialogue in the vein of Raymond Chandler, whose The Lady in the Lake came out the same year. Also around the same time, RKO Pictures had more or less plagiarised the Saint for the movies and rechristened him the Falcon, with George Sanders (an ex-movie Saint) in the title role. Oddly enough, the third Falcon film, The Falcon Takes Over (1942), was based on Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely – so, in a strange way, the Saint became Philip Marlowe, however briefly!
Unlike Marlowe, though, Simon Templar doesn’t have the dubious respectability of a private detective’s licence; he does, however, have the same sense of himself as an adventurer, a sort of knight errant, as a man who, in Chandler’s words, is ‘a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it . . . The best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.’ He is, after all, the Saint.