In his excellent critical study of the thriller genres, The Durable Desperadoes, William Vivian Butler points out there are five quite distinct phases in the career of Leslie Charteris’s The Saint. The first three phases occurred during the 1930s, the fourth was the wartime Saint, and the final phase began in the late 40s. The Mark V Saint was a very different character to any of the earlier versions.
So far I’ve been confining my attentions to the early incarnations of Simon Templar. The 1955 short story collection The Saint on the Spanish Main represents my first exposure to this Mark V Saint, and it’s rather startling. For one thing, The Saint is now very much a loner. In his earlier versions Templar was always the leader of a gang. Not a gang of criminals, although Simon’s activities were often borderline illegal, and in some cases quite blatantly illegal. The Saint’s followers in the first books, from the early 1930s, are more like Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men, and he even had his very own Maid Marian in the form of Patricia Holm. This early Saint was very much a team player, and given the scale of his operations he needed to be.
The Mark V Saint not only works alone, he lives alone. He lives mostly in hotel rooms. His lifestyle is glamorous and lavish and he is never short of feminine company for very long but at the same time there is a subtly air of melancholy about him. This is no longer the outrageously exuberant larger-than-life Simon Templar who seemed possessed of inexhaustible energy and an equally inexhaustible capacity for irrepressible schoolboy humour. There is no question that this is a slightly older Simon Templar and that he is a sadder but wiser man.
As Butler also pointed out in his book Leslie Charteris made a conscious decision to
scale down The Saint. He is no longer battling diabolical criminal masterminds and the fate of civilisation itself no longer hangs in the balance. Simon Templar’s life is as adventurous as ever but the adventures are on a smaller scale. To have even as redoubtable a hero as The Saint battling evil on an epic scale entirely alone would hardly have been convincing. His adventures are now of the sort that a solitary world-traveller can easily cope with.
The whimsicality is still there, but it’s a gentle whimsicality. Simon Templar still finds that the world provides a great deal of amusement but it’s no longer the amusement that an overgrown schoolboy would find. It is the amusement of a sophisticated, intelligent and rather thoughtful man. He is still a youthful figure but he is clearly now much closer to middle age, although we can be sure it will be a vigorous and lively middle age.
Simon Templar has certainly not turned over a new leaf. He still dabbles in crime, although as always his victims are villains who thoroughly deserve to be fleeced.
Charteris has not lost any of his old skill. He has merely adapted his skills to changing times. He has created a Saint who is as much at home in the world of the 1950s as his earlier incarnation was in the world of the early 1930s. Thriller writers are not renowned for character development but that is what Charteris has attempted, and rather successfully. The Simon Templar of the 1950s is the sort of man that the Simon Templar of the 1930s might well have grown into, more reflective and slightly less reckless, but with the benefit of age and experience.
Having The Saint island-hopping through the Caribbean provides perfect settings for adventures, and the adventures come thick and fast. Simon Templar finds himself searching for sunken treasure (The Old Treasure Story), foiling a revolution in Jamaica (The Black Commissar), solving an ingenious murder (The Arrow of God) and getting the better of some rather nasty villains (The Unkind Philanthropist and The Effete Angler). In The Questing Tycoon he discovers that there’s rather more to voodoo than he’d thought.
Charteris uses the settings with skill and as more than just colourful backgrounds.
On the whole I think I prefer the Mark II Saint of the early 1930s but The Saint on the Spanish Main is an intriguing collection. Charteris was a master of the short story form, a form which he always preferred. Highly recommended.