Friday, November 3, 2017

The Saint vs Scotland Yard

The Saint vs Scotland Yard (originally published as The Holy Terror in 1932) is a collection of three novellas featuring Simon Templar, the Saint. The novella was probably the ideal format for stories about The Saint and Leslie Charteris made use of it frequently.

The Saint stories fall into several very distinct phases and this collection still very much belongs to the first phase. Although Simon Templar no longer has his gang he does still have Patricia as an invaluable partner in his adventures. The partnership with Patricia was a little daring for the early 30s since it is crystal clear that she is his live-in lover and that marriage does not figure in their plans for the future.

First up in this collection is The Inland Revenue and it deals with the battle of wits between Templar and the ruthless criminal mastermind known as the Scorpion. The Scorpion’s speciality is blackmail, on a rather spectacular scale. He is slightly unusual among literary diabolical criminal masterminds in that he is essentially a gifted amateur criminal, albeit a very ambitious one. He is also unusual in being something of a lone wolf.

Simon Templar is certainly not afraid of criminals like the Scorpion but in The Inland Revenue Service he has finally encountered an enemy he cannot defeat. He is going to have to pay the very large tax bill with which they have just presented him. Or rather someone is going to have to pay it and Simon is determined that the money is not actually going to come out of his own pocket.

The Scorpion might be an amateur but he proves to be a dangerous and cold-blooded adversary.

Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal has accepted Templar’s assistance many times in the past but generally with reluctance and a deep sense of foreboding. In this story however he is prepared to accept the Saint’s help willingly and with remarkably good grace.

The Million Pound Day begins with a scream and a terrified man being pursued by a figure who seems to have stepped straight out of the steamy jungles of Darkest Africa. It’s nothing to do with Simon but of course he intervenes and he discovers that he has stumbled upon a gigantic international currency racket. This racket is going to cause untold economic devastation so this is one adventure in which the Saint’s motives are almost entirely pure.

This time he’s up against a much more profession type of villain, one whose methods are so thorough and so devious, and so murderous, that one false step will mean instant death. To Simon Templar of course this makes the whole affair even more appealing.

These first two stories are fairly standard Saint tales, with Simon cheerfully hoodwinking other thieves. The third novella, The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal, is rather different.

In this story Simon Templar is after some diamonds. A rather considerable quantity of them. They don’t belong to Simon, but then technically they don’t belong to the man who is currently in possession of them either. Since they’re already stolen they might as well be benefiting Simon’s bank account rather than someone else’s. Fortunately Simon’s ethics are somewhat flexible on matters such as this.

Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal would like to find the diamonds as well, and the man who stole them. But mostly he would like, at long last, to find a way to lay the blame for a crime at Simon’s feet and make the charges stick. It has become an obsession.

In this story the long duel between the Saint and Chief Inspector Teal takes a turn that neither the Saint nor Teal could have anticipated and both men are going to be forced to deal with a dramatic change in their relations. The Saint’s life will also reach a crossroads. He will have to think seriously about the future and this is not something he finds easy to do.

Most successful thriller writers find a formula that works and more or less stick to it, and when they create a successful hero that hero tends not to change very much. Leslie Charteris was a bit different in this respect. Over the course of his lengthy literary career the Saint did change. The circumstances of his life changed, and his character evolved somewhat as well. The Saint did something that few thriller heroes do - he got older and wiser, and perhaps just a little sadder. The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal is the first indication that the Saint’s personality might not be set in stone. He always remained recognisably the same character but gradually he became a slightly more mature version of that character. In this story Simon Templar has the first intimations that his life may not continue forever in the exact same manner. It is fascinating to see hints of this in what is still a very early Saint story. Charteris was the master of the light-hearted thriller but there was a touch of subtlety in his writing that one doesn’t quite expect. It’s typical of Charteris that these hints of subtlety never interfere with the fun.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with Charteris’s ability to construct a plot the real attraction is, as always, the sheer joy and reckless bravado with which Simon Templar enters into the battle of wits and the superb lightness of touch of the author. In the early Saint books Charteris would push the jokiness about as far as it could be pushed and then some and while this is a risky approach (which in the hands of a lesser writer could easily become irritating) somehow he always gets away with it. Which is appropriate since the Saint’s own approach to life is one of cheerfully accepting insane risks.

The Saint vs Scotland Yard is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.


  1. Hurrah - another Saint enthusiast!

    Charteris and Carr, incidentally, strike me as kindred spirits. Both were firm believers in Adventure in the Grand Manner, had a "man of the world" attitude to life, and had a healthy disgust for introspective realist novelists and the Russian strength through gloom movement. (See LC's preface to this book.) Both were also big fans of Chesterton and Conan Doyle. (Charteris wrote some of the episodes of the Basil Rathbone series.) Unsurprisingly, Charteris praised Carr.

    The other authors with that spirit of adventure, worldiliness, and sense of humour, are non-crime writers: Gerald Durrell, George MacDonald Fraser (the Flashman books), and P.G. Wodehouse. Maybe Ian Fleming, too.

    1. The other authors with that spirit of adventure, worldliness, and sense of humour, are non-crime writers: Gerald Durrell, George MacDonald Fraser (the Flashgun books), and P.G. Wodehouse. Maybe Ian Fleming, too.

      And as it happens they're all writers whose books I have thoroughly enjoyed.

      Fraser was probably the last of the breed, with that old-fashioned zest for unapologetic fun. He does resemble Charteris in the way he blends adventure and humour. And both Simon Templar and Flashgun are ambiguous heroes. Templar's a thief and Flashgun's a coward and a cad but they both have enough charm to get away with it. The similarities between some of these writers hadn't struck me until you mentioned it.