Saturday, May 27, 2023

The Saint Goes West

The Saint Goes West is a 1942 collection of three Saint novellas by Leslie Charteris. Although he wrote fine novels and short stories I’ve always felt that the novella was the perfect form for Charteris. In this collection he demonstrates his complete mastery of the form.

The three novellas are Arizona, Palm Springs and Hollywood.

Leslie Charteris wrote a huge number of Saint stories from the late 1920s up to the early 1960s. The Saint went through several quite distinct incarnations during this time. For my money the most satisfactory versions of the Saint were the first version and the final version. In his initial incarnation Simon Templar is very young, dashing, reckless, carefree, irresponsible and irrepressible. He’s like an overgrown schoolboy, but a charming schoolboy. His sense of fun is infectious. He’s the leader of a criminal gang but they only steal from other criminals and spend more time fighting crime than committing it. Simon acquires a live-in girlfriend, Patricia Holm, and she is the great love of his life. The original version of the Saint is to be found in books such as The Saint Closes the Case and The Avenging Saint.

In his final incarnation he hasn’t aged much physically (he should be in his sixties in his final adventures but he always apparently remains in his thirties) but he’s grown up. He’s now a loner. He seems quite a bit older. He is wiser, and perhaps just a bit sadder. There’s just the faintest hint of melancholy. He is still recognisably the same man, but he has grown up. He has gained some depth. His thirst for adventure remains unquenched although at times you get the vague feeling that he is not entirely comfortable in the postwar world and the adventures are his way of coping with a duller, greyer, more conformist world. This version of Simon Templar can be seen fully formed in the 1948 story collection Saint Errant.

But in between there were a couple of other versions of the Saint. There is the Saint transplanted to America in the late 30s. And The Saint Goes West gives us another one of these transitional editions of Simon Templar.

Simon has been slightly Americanised (not surprising since Charteris had relocated to America and had become hugely popular there). I don’t think this version of the characters works quite as well as the earlier or later versions. He’s lost some of the over-the-top fun quality of the first version and hasn’t yet acquired the substance of the later Saint. But he’s still the Saint and he’s still entertaining.

On the plus side Charteris was at his peak when it came to plotting, especially in Palm Springs and Hollywood. And he uses the American settings extremely well.

In Arizona Simon Templar gets to do the whole cowboy routine. He’s set things up so that he can persuade a rancher to take him on as a hand. The rancher is involved in a dispute with a neighbour who wants to buy the ranch and is prepared to use underhand means to force a sale. The neighbour claims to want to buy the ranch because of a dispute over water rights.

Simon is willing to do the right thing and help out his new employer.

It seems like a classic western story but we suspect from the start that there’s some deeper reasons for the Saint’s presence in Arizona. Since this is a wartime story we further suspect that the reason has something to do with espionage or some dastardly German plot. We already know that Simon suspects that the rancher’s brother was murdered.

Simon finds time to strike up a bit of a romance with the rancher’s daughter.

It gradually becomes obvious that there’s a lot more at stake than water rights, and that the situation is likely to get very ugly.

This is the least successful of the three stories.

Palm Springs has an interesting history. Charteris wrote a screenplay for the RKO Saint series, called The Saint in Palm Springs. By the time the movie was shot there was nothing left of Charteris’s story. In 1941 Charteris wrote a photo-story (told with text and photos) for Life magazine. The story was called Palm Springs. Everybody, including Charteris himself, loved it. So he decided to use it as the basis for the novella Palm Springs.

A rich dissolute young man named Freddie Pellman hires Simon as a bodyguard. He thinks that a mobster is intending to have him rubbed out. Freddie lives in a palatial rambling house in Palm Springs with his harem. Yes, he has a harem. It comprises a blonde, a brunette and a redhead. It’s not always the same blonde, brunette and redhead but there’s always one of each. And no, they’re not just house guests or personal assistants or anything like that. It’s a real harem. The three girls all share Freddie’s bed (although not all at the same time). At this moment the harem comprises Esther, Ginny and Lissa.

Sure enough somebody does try to kill Freddie (he has a narrow escape). The Saint thinks it was an inside job. Which means the assassin has to be one of the three girls, or one of the three servants in the house. And for various reasons the servants seem unlikely suspects. So it’s probably one of the girls. All three are at least vaguely possible suspects.

They all have alibis, but the alibis are not too solid. And Simon doesn’t put too much stock in alibis. He’s made use of alibis himself and he knows how slippery they can be. The alibis do however play a part in the story.

It’s a fine little plot. There’s a somewhat decadent atmosphere, with a cast of colourful offbeat characters and as so often Charteris gets the tone just right - not too serious, not too whimsical. An excellent story.

In Hollywood Simon is offered a job by movie producer Byron Ufferlitz (he used to be a racketeer and now he’s in a different racket). He is rather taken aback when he finds out that he is being groomed for movie stardom. He isn’t sure he wants to be a a screen idol but working at a film studio has its compensations. Ufferlitz has a charming pretty secretary, Peggy Warden. And for publicity purposes Simon has to pretend to romance starlet April Quest. Since she’s also very pretty Simon decides Hollywood isn’t too bad a place.

There’s plenty of drama at the studio, provided not just by ex-racketeer producers and glamorous starlets but also by a couple of crazy screenwriters named Lazaroff and Kendricks, a director named Jack Groom and pretty-boy star Orlando Flane. All of whom have reasons to resent all the others.

So when murder occurs there’s no shortage of suspects. What really concerns Simon is that the police think he’s a suspect as well. So the Saint has a very strong motivation to find the real culprit.

There are some nicely planted clues and as with Palm Springs there’s plenty of misdirection. Another nicely constructed plot and another fine story with a nifty little ending.

So overall, The Saint Goes West does not offer my favourite version of the Saint but it does offer one good story and two excellent very clever stories and those two stories are good enough to lift this book into the highly recommended rating.

And, happily, this book is in print.

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