Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Enter the Saint

Enter the Saint is a collection of three very early novellas (The Man Who Was Clever, The Policeman with Wings and The Lawless Lady) recounting the adventures of Simon Templar, alias The Saint. It appeared in book form in 1930.

Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) was a writer who achieved success remarkably quickly. He was nineteen when his first novel was published. The Saint was one of his very early creations although it took him a while to realise that this character was so perfect for his purposes that there was little point in bothering with any others. By 1930 he certainly was aware of this. 

While Charteris wrote some fine Saint novels and short stories it was the novella that became his preferred format. It offered enough scope for reasonably complex plots while remaining fast-paced and exciting. As he himself put it it also has one great advantage for a writer - it can be finished before its author grows tired of it.

The three novellas in this collection are perhaps not quite as polished as some of his later efforts but they more than make up for this in sheer energy and vitality. 

Both the character of Simon Templar and the tone of the books evolved over time, going through several well-defined and very distinctive phases. In these three novellas we see the very earliest incarnation of The Saint. He is young, reckless and insanely self-confident. He is also exceptionally ruthless - far more ruthless than any of the TV or movie versions of the character. This Simon Templar is a killer. He only kills people who thoroughly deserve it, and only does so when he feels that he has to, but when he considers it to be necessary he does so without hesitation and without being troubled by any sense of guilt. 

This early Simon Templar is also a crook. He only steals from other criminals and he gives most of the proceeds to charity but he does take a healthy “commission” for himself and his gang. And he also feels no qualms of conscience about the illegality of his actions. His code of ethics might be unconventional in the extreme but it is also in its own way quite rigid and so long as he remains within his self-imposed moral code he is entirely untroubled by guilt.

While Simon Templar’s nickname The Saint and his habit of referring to wrongdoers as the ungodly are part of his carefully contrived image, intended to strike fear into his underworld enemies, there is perhaps just a hint of an actual quasi-religious element here. The Saint has no respect for the laws of the land but he has a very great respect for what could be described as a higher moral law. He is in some ways truly an avenging angel, punishing the wicked in a manner that would not be out of place in the Old Testament. Whether Templar has any actual religious belief is never stated but he does rather behave as if his campaign against crime is motivated by at least some kind of abstract belief in divine retribution.

The Saint’s relationship with his would-be nemesis Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal of Scotland Yard (who makes his first appearance in these tales) is established. They are sometimes adversaries and sometimes allies. Teal has high hopes of arresting The Saint although it’s clear that these hopes are unlikely ever to be fulfilled. There’s a certain respect between the two men and even a grudging degree of affection. Teal strongly disapproves of Templar’s methods but he has to admit that they are effective and that they do often serve the cause of justice, if not the cause of law. These stories also introduce some of the members of The Saint’s gang, such as Dicky Tremayne. Others would gradually make their appearance in subsequent stories. In fact Dicky Tremayne is the central character in The Lawless Lady with The Saint playing a somewhat subordinate role.

In The Man Who Was Clever Simon pits his wits against a drug smuggler while The Policeman with Wings involves kidnapping and jewel theft. They’re both fine stories but The Lawless Lady is perhaps even better, a tale of an ambitious seagoing jewel robbery complicated by the fact that Simon’s pal Dicky Tremayne is in love with the glamorous and very dangerous lady gangster masterminding the whole nefarious conspiracy.

Charteris’s style is both energetic and whimsical, just like his hero. It’s a style that was attempted by a number of the great thriller writers of the interwar years but no other writer ever pulled off with quite the same breath-taking bravado and sense of style.

Simon Templar first appeared in the 1928 novel Meet the Tiger. Enter the Saint was the second of the Saint books, followed in the same year by the splendid The Saint Closes the Case (also published as The Last Hero).

For anyone who has not yet sampled the delights of Leslie Charteris’s superb thrillers Enter the Saint is a good starting point. It is highly desirable to read the Saint books in chronological order and Enter the Saint offers the opportunity to see The Saint in action at the beginning of his illustrious career. Highly recommended.

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