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Sunday 22 August 2021

The Golden Age: Leslie Charteris (May 12, 1907-April 15, 1993)

 by Carol Westron

Leslie Charteris was born Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin, but he legally changed his name to Charteris in 1926. It is uncertain why he decided upon the name Charteris but in a Radio 4 documentary to celebrate the centenary of his birth, his daughter claimed he had taken it from a phone directory. Charteris pronounced his name as it is spelt Chart-er-is, rather than the traditional English pronunciation Charters.

Charteris was born in Singapore; his mother was English and his father a high-born Chinese doctor. In 1919 Charteris, his mother and younger brother returned to live in London. Charteris attended Rossall School in Lancashire and then started to study Law at King's College, Cambridge. From an early age Charteris wanted to write and, while still a schoolboy, created his own magazine fully equipped with short stories, articles, serials, editorials and a comic strip.

When he was nineteen, in his first year of university, his novel X Esquire (1927) was accepted for publication. Charteris left university and proceeded to carve out his own, unconventional life. He worked in a tin mine, on a rubber plantation, and as a gold prospector in the jungle; he dived for pearls and was a seaman on a freighter and a barman in an English country pub; he worked at a wood distillation plant and travelled around England as a member of a fair. He was a professional bridge player in a London Club and studied bull fighting in Spain. This explains the rich variety of backgrounds in his books and why the details are so plausible. In 1928, before he was twenty-one, he had created the Saint and nearly all of his literary out-put in the future surrounded adventures of the Saint.

In 1932 Charteris moved to America. He immediately felt at home there and, at that point, decided it was where he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Unfortunately he was excluded from permanent residency in the US because of the Chinese Exclusion Act; this prohibited immigration for people with '50% or greater Oriental blood.' For many years Charteris had to renew his temporary visitor's visa every six months, until an Act of Congress personally granted him and his daughter permanent residence in the US with eligibility for naturalisation. During this time he continued to publish short stories (many of the Saint books consisted of loosely linked novellas or short stories) and worked as a writer for Paramount Pictures. It is interesting to note that, in the 1930s, Charteris himself founded the Saint Fan Club. In 1937 he edited and translated into English Juan Belmonte, Killer of Bulls, written by Manuel Chaves Nogales. In the 1940s he scripted the Sherlock Holmes radio series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. In 1941 he played the Saint in a photographic adaptation of a Saint short story for Life Magazine, and in 1945 he turned his screenplay Lady on a Train into a novel.

In later years Charteris edited or collaborated in Saint books; he also edited and contributed to The Saint Mystery Magazine. As well as fiction, he wrote Spanish for Fun (1964); wrote a column on cuisine for an American magazine; and invented a wordless, pictorial sign language called Paleneo and wrote a book on it, which was published in 1972.

Charteris was one of the earliest members of Mensa. He married four times. During the last years of his life, Charteris and his fourth wife returned to live in England. Charteris died in Windsor in 1993, aged eighty-five.

All of Charteris' adult life revolved around The Saint. In 1928 Charteris published Meet the Tiger (later reissued under several titles, the most popular of which is The Saint Meets the Tiger.) This is the first introduction to Simon Templar, alias the Saint, a nickname derived from his initials. The Saint is an adventurer, a 'Robin Hood of Crime.' He makes his living by stealing from rich people who have gained their money dishonestly, although not always in ways that the Law can punish. He is handsome, charming and has numerous affairs with the women whom he encounters, often when he is saving them from peril although sometimes they are rival law-breakers. His 'calling card' is a drawing of a stick-man with a halo. In Enter the Saint, some crooked gamblers who found to their cost that the Saint was not the easy prey they had thought him, are complaining of their loss to DCI Teal.

'The envelope was not sealed. Teal turned it over, and remarked on the flap the crest of the hotel that had provided it. Then in his lethargic way, he drew out the contents – a single sheet of paper. “Portrait by Epstein,” he drawled. “Quite a nice drawing, but it don't mean anything to me outside of that. You boys have been reading too many detective novels lately, that's the trouble with you.”' The reader isn't told what is on the piece of paper, but we know (and soon the unfortunate Teal will know as well.) Apart from anything else the stick-man with a halo is on all of the Saint books and forms an integral part of the introduction sequence on the Saint television series, starring Roger Moore.

It is hard to get a definitive number of how many Saint books were published, as there are not only numerous translations but also many of the books have a range of titles. It is generally accepted that there are at least eighty and maybe as many as one hundred books featuring the Saint. Bearing this in mind, and the long timespan over which they are written, it is not surprising that the Saint books are often inconsistent in their details. For example, at first Simon Templar's identity as the Saint is known to the police, then his identity is a mystery and they are trying to prove that Templar is the Saint.

Throughout the books, his relationship with the police is particularly interesting. The first Saint book, Meet the Tiger, featured Inspector Carne as the police presence but in the second book, Enter the Saint, we are introduced to Detective Chief Inspector Claude Eustace Teal, the long-suffering, gum-chewing detective who spends much of his time in trying to put the Saint behind bars

Teal is doomed to always be out-witted by the Saint, who often mocks him and makes him a laughing stock, and yet Teal is a competent and valuable police officer of solid worth. 'Teal was reputed to have the longest memory of any man at the Yard. It was said, perhaps with some exaggeration, that if the Records Office happened to be totally destroyed by fire, Teal could personally have rewritten the dossier of every criminal therein recorded, methods, habits, haunts, and notable idiosyncrasies completely included – and added thereto a rough but reliable sketch of every set of fingerprints therewith connected. Certainly, he had a long memory.' (Enter the Saint. 1930)

 However, Teal recognises that the Saint is often the lesser of two evils and, in order to fight fire with fire, he is often drawn into reluctant alliance with the Saint. In the story The Inland Revenue, Teal offers to overlook any profit the Saint makes if he will hand over a homicidal blackmailer to official justice. '”They'd have the coat off my back if it ever got round,” he said, “But between you and me and these four walls, I'll make you a deal – if you'll make one too.”...

...”What is it?”

“Save the Scorpion for me, and I won't ask how you paid your income tax.”'

And when the Saint agrees, 'Teal nodded and held out his hand.  '”I'll buy you a glass of beer at any pub inside the three-mile radius on the day you bring him in,” he said.' (The Saint v. Scotland Yard, [original title The Holy Terror]; 1932.)

In Meet the Tiger, the Saint is introduced as a young adventurer who has moved into a North Devon village to recover smuggled gold from a villain known as the Tiger. Much of the book is focused on both Templar and the reader trying to discover the identity of the Tiger. In later years, Charteris practically disowned Meet the Tiger. He pointed out that it was the work of a young man who was only twenty years old and wrote, "I can see so much wrong with it that I am humbly astonished that it got published at all." However Meet the Tiger is interesting in many ways; not least because it introduces the Saint, 'a man of twenty-seven, tall, dark, keen-faced, deeply tanned, blue-eyed.' Certainly the Saint is a very different type of hero to the other detectives who were being created in the 1920s: imagine Hercule Poirot carrying, strapped to his forearm, a slim blade that could 'take a man's thumb off before the gun was half out of his pocket.' Even in that first, immature book, the difference between Simon Templar and his Golden Age contemporaries is clear; he is not a detective, he is an adventurer, a man who does not have doubts, is not bound by the Law or traditional morality, and seldom has regrets. However, in some ways, Meet the Tiger has more of a feel of the Golden Age than any other Saint story . This is mainly because the Saint has a manservant, Orace, whose relationship with his master has much in common with Albert Campion and the peerless Lugg. When the Saint is almost shot by a sniper, Orace responds in a truly Lugg-like manner:

'”The Tiger knows his stuff,” remarked Simon Templar with a kind of admiration.

“Like a greenorn!” spluttered Orace. “Like a namachoor” Wa did ja expect? An' just wotcha deserved – an' I ope it learns ya! You ain't 'urt, sir, are ye?” added Orace, succumbing to human sympathy.
“No – but near enough,” said the Saint.

 Orace flung out his arms.

“Pity 'e didn't plug ya one, just ter make ya more careful nex' time. I'd a bin grateful to 'im. An' if I ever lay my 'ands on the swine 'es for it,” concluded Orace, somewhat illogically, and strutted back to the Pill Box.

Orace, as a Sergeant of Marines, had received a German bullet in his right hip at Zeebrugge, and had walked with a lopsided strut ever since.' (Meet the Tiger 1929.)

This brings us to another interesting point. Charteris never gives us any biographical details about the Saint; his past is shrouded in mystery, but he was of an age to have served in the First World War and where better place to pick up an old soldier to act as his servant and loyal ally?

Meet the Tiger is also significant because it is the book in which Simon Templar meets Patricia Holm, the woman who is his partner in adventure and lover for many of the early Saint books and who, for the central part of Meet the Tiger, carries the adventure forward on her own, when the Saint is believed to be dead. '“I've met the most wonderful girl in the world,” said Simon impenitently. “By all the laws of adventure, I'm bound to have to save her life two or three times during the next ten days. I shall kiss her very passionately in the last chapter. We shall be married-“' (Meet the Tiger, 1929.)

Two out of three correct predictions isn't bad, but the last one missed the mark. Simon Templar and Pat never married. Instead she became his live-in girlfriend at a time when such liaisons were deeply disapproved of. Think of Dorothy L. Sayers' Harriet Vane and her soul-searching about agreeing to live with Philip Boyes and compare it with the gaiety of Pat Holm's response when the Saint asks:

'”Why are you so beautiful Pat?”

She flung him a dazzling smile.

“Probably,” she said, “Because I find I'm still in love with you – after a whole year. And you're still in love with me. The combination's enough to make anyone beautiful.”' (Enter the Saint; 1930.)

Another point of similarity between the early Saint books and the early adventures of Albert Campion was that both had a group of loyal followers; young men who were willing to commit themselves to whatever dangerous task their leader plunged into, often without knowing what it was all about. The first two Saint books were straightforward adventure thrillers but in The Last Hero (1930) (better known by its 1950 title, The Saint Closes the Case), Simon Templar, Pat Holm and his friends, notably Roger Conway and Norman Kent, enter the world of the political thriller, as they fight the evil power of the ruthless tycoon, Rayt Marius and his master, Crown Prince Rudolph, ruler of an unnamed European country. This book and the one following it, The Avenging Saint (1931) (originally known as Knight Templar (1930), are darker in tone than most other Saint books, mainly because of the death of Norman Kent, who sacrifices himself for his friends and for his country.

Pat Holm appears only briefly in The Avenging Saint. She is sent out of harm's way on a Mediterranean cruise and the Saint acquires a new female love interest for this book. This was the same excuse that Charteris had used to get Pat out of the way for much of the action in Enter the Saint. It seems possible that, despite his protests about how deeply in love they were, even at this early stage, Charteris was regretting hampering his charming, womanising hero with such a perfect partner. Certainly the relationship between Simon Templar and Pat Holm was a very 'open' one, although perhaps, like most such relationships, a somewhat unbalanced one. Certainly Charteris does not indicate that when Pat is absent she is indulging in a wild adventure with another man. However, when Pat is present, her character and their relationship lights up the book.

'The Saint regarded her for a moment. He saw the tall slim lines of reposeful strength in her body, the fine moulding of the chin, the eyes as blue and level as his own. And slowly he screwed the cap on his fountain pen; and he stood up and came round the table.

“I'll tell you as much more as you want to know,” he said.

“Just like in the mad old days?”

“They had their moments, hadn't they?”

She nodded. “Sometimes I wish we were back in them,” she said wistfully.' (The Saint v. Scotland Yard, 1932.)

The Saint's gang of friends also drifted away, most of them into marriage, a state that the Saint has no enthusiasm for. 'He was writing when she (Pat) arrived, but he put down his pen and surveyed her solemnly. “Oh there you are,” he remarked. “I thought you were dead, but Teal said he thought you might only have taken a trip to Vladivostok.”

“I've been helping Eilen Wiltham – her wedding's only five days away. Haven't you any more interest in her?”

“None,” said the Saint callously. “The thought of the approaching crime makes my mind feel unbinged –

  unhinged.”' (The Saint v. Scotland Yard, 1932.)

It seems probable that, in this case, true words are spoken in jest. A few pages later the Saint comments on the fate of the rest of his friends as he is discussing whether to let Pat join him in his latest, dangerous adventure. '”The old gang have gone – Dicky, Archie, Roger – gone and got spliced on to women and come over all bowler hat. There's only you left. It'd make the vicar's wife let out one piercing squawk and swallow her knitting needles, but who cares? If you'd really like to have another sniff at the old brew?”

“Give me the chance!”

Simon grinned.

“And you'd flop after it like a homesick walrus down a water-chute, wouldn't you?”

“Faster,” she said.' (The Saint v. Scotland Yard, 1932.)

Despite the acknowledgement that there was 'only you left,' Pat Holm was far from a permanent fixture in the books or in the Saint's life. She continued to feature in some, but not all of the earlier Saint books and then simply disappeared. However many years later there was some suggestion, for a television script, that the Saint should meet the son that came from his union with Pat.

The range of the Saint's hobbies extended with each book but one of his earliest mentioned hobbies was writing comic poetry and songs. In The Saint v. Scotland Yard (1930) it is revealed that he had also written an adventure book, The Pirate, with a hero very similar to the Saint himself. The Saint has different pseudonyms for use when he does not wish to be immediately identified; although one does wonder how, after the first few years, any crook who had kept his ear to the ground would not have recognised the Saint's favourite alternative, Sebastian Tombs.

The range of Saint books vary in structure. There are full length books; books containing two or three short novellas and books containing a collection of loosely linked short stories. The stories also vary in tone and content, from fast moving adventures such as The Saint In New York (1935) to gentle short stories like The Golden Journey, in The Saint in Europe, (1954) in which the Saint takes a spoiled heiress on a several-days-long, cross country hike in the Tyrol, to teach her the error of her ways. The girl is engaged to somebody else and it is a purely platonic relationship. The only crime in the story is the Saint's original theft of her handbag, to force her make the journey on foot, and no more adventure happens in it than the Saint instructing her on the best way to make scrambled eggs.

The most notable thing about the Saint is that he never seems to grow older. His friends marry and settle down but he carries on, as fit and attractive as he was in the first books, although his language and manners alter to suit different decades, as do the nature of his adventures, and he becomes a gentler, subtler man. He is the Peter Pan of Golden Age protagonists. It is quite revealing that Charteris approved of the choice of Roger Moore to play the Saint on television but liked him more in the role in the early years than later, when Moore, being only human, had aged.

The Saint stories are adventures. They are meant for pure fun and that is what Charteris intended. In his 1980 introduction to the reprint of Enter the Saint he wrote:

'I was always sure that there was a solid place in escape literature for a rambunctious adventurer such as I dreamed up in my youth, 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.'

It was hard to choose a Saint book to review; they are so numerous and so varied in tone. In the end I chose Señor Saint, first published in 1959, which contains four stories, focusing mainly on The Pearls of Peace for the good reason that Leslie Charteris stated it was his favourite Saint story. Click here to read the review.

Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts
click on the title.

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