For those who haven’t heard, The Saint is returning to television. The new actor to take on Simon Templer’s halo is Adam Rayner, and, yes, Roger Moore is very much involved. The pilot has been shot, but broadcast details are still top secret. Stay tuned.
Until then, the Saint Renaissance is going full throttle with a new series of reissues of the original Leslie Charteris books. But there’s more to the new publications than merely dusting off the old printing plates.
According to series editor Ian Dickerson (long-time Honorary Secretary of The Saint Club), there will be batches of Charteris books coming out between now and next February including 35 titles for Mulholland in the UK., 49 via Amazon in the US. Dickerson says, “We’re doing them pretty much in order of first publication. The exception is the first two books. We don’t have the rights to Meet The Tiger (1928) so we’re starting with Enter the Saint (1930). Chronologically we should start with The Saint Closes the Case (1930) but it makes more sense to start with Enter, and since we’re releasing them in batches, it doesn’t cause too much of a problem.”
The new editions include new material, notably introductions by a wide variety of Saint devotees. “I wanted people who have a recognisable profile,” Dickerson claims,” but more importantly who have a genuine love or at least an appreciation of the material.” The new Saint, Rayner, was one of these contributors. TV writers include John Rogers (co-creator of the very Saint-like Leverage), Steve Bailie, Gillian Horvath, and Michael Hirst (who was involved in the development of the 1997 Saint film.) Book authors include Zoe Sharp, Peter Robinson, Peter Lovesey, Dick Lochte, James Reasoner, and Spider Robinson. Dickerson himself does one introduction as well. In addition, he contributed a publication history at the end of each book including previous reprints, translations into foreign languages, and what stories were adapted into television and film.
The new covers are “colourful pastiches of the old French/Dutch and some UK covers that make good use of the stickman in certain situations,” Dickerson notes. “So, for The Saint in London, for example, we have a stickman in a bowler with an umbrella against a silhouette of the London skyline.” Other supplementary material is the Leslie Charteris introductions the Saint’s creator wrote for reissues in the 1960s. Back then, his books came out in coordination with the Roger Moore series with the actor on the covers. While not new commentary, it is interesting to read again what Charteris thought of how his books fared some 30 years after their debuts when they had already become, in his view, period pieces.
Now, this reviewer admits to reading most, probably not all, of the English-language books and stories penned not only by Charteris, but some by authorized successors. (Most had adapted TV scripts into tie-in novels such as Harry Harrison’s novelization of Vendetta for The Saint (1964). Some I’ve read multiple times. So it was with considerable enthusiasm I received a batch of the new editions to both explore the new material and wonder, once again, if the “period pieces” of Charteris deserve new audiences.
Dickerson sent me what I presume is the second round of publications beginning with the sixth book, Alias The Saint (1931),followed by The Saint Meets His Match (1931), The Saint vs. Scotland yard (1932), Getaway (1932), and The Saint and Mr. Teal (1933). Throughout these collections of novellas and full novels, we’re continually reminded that during this period, Simon Templar had become largely a lone wolf, no longer leading his gang of cohorts we saw in the early books. The one exception is his on again, off again romance with Patricia Holm. While it wouldn’t dismay any modern readers, it was a bit shocking in the 1930s for a hero to overtly live with a woman he wasn’t married to. Through it all, of course, there’s Templer’s sometimes nemesis, sometimes quiet supporter Claud Eustace Teal, the droopy-eyed inspector who used bored expressions as a façade for his deceptively keen mind.
Naturally, the content of these stories and plots varies in quality and development. Likewise the new introductions. In some cases, like William Simon’s remarks for Alias, we get fannish appreciations, as in why some readers became Saint fans to begin with and why they like him still. In other cases, as in serious Saint expert Burl Barer’s commentary for Getaway, we get useful insights into the background into the book. (As it happens, Getaway also offers Charteris’s discussion on how he based the character Monty Hayward on his editor friend, Monty Hadon.) Also noteworthy is John Goldsmith’s very useful comparison between The Saint and the books of the “Clubland” tradition (as in Sapper and John Buchan) for The Saint and Mr. Teal. After all, Goldsmith’s scriptwriting credits include Return of The Saint, which starred Ian Ogilvy, and the Simon Dutton Saint TV movies.
But, other than collectors, I suspect few readers will pick up these new editions due to the introductions. The point is the stories of Leslie Charteris. After all these years, do they hold up? Are they still entertaining?
Well, while the contrivances of the old stories — torture in basements, odd death-traps, Templer’s clever escape route built into his Berkeley Mews property — may now seem antiquated, it’s hard to beat the light-hearted style of Charteris. In both his character’s flippant banter laced with colorful imagery along with the novelist’s own descriptions, it’s hard not to frequently laugh out loud at the intended jokes.
Take, for example, the following passages from Getaway. In the hands of any other novelist, the hero would simply decide to slug their opponent and hopefully one carefully thrown fist would do the trick. Charteris could mine such moments for all they were worth:
” . . . Simon reached down a thoughtfully probing hand into the tangle, felt the scruff of a thick neck, and yanked forth a man. For one soul-shaking instant they glared at each other in the dim light; and it became regrettably obvious to the Saint that the face he was regarding must have been without exception the most depraved and villainous specimen of its kind south of Munich. And therefore, with what he would always hold to be the most profound and irrefragably philosophic justification in the world, he hit it, thoughtfully and experimentally, upon the nose.”
A depraved and ugly face, perhaps, but it turned out to belong to a policeman actually trying to help a kidnapped victim. But at the time, Templar didn’t know it and “After all, he had done nothing desperately exciting for a long time. About twenty-one days.” In that condition:
“Then and there, when his resistance was at its lowest ebb, he heard and felt the juicy plonk of his fist sinking home into a nose. The savour of that fruity squash wormed itself wheedlingly down into the very cockles of his heart. He liked it. It stirred the deepest chords of his being. And it dawned persuasively upon him that at that moment he desired nothing more of life than an immediate repetition of that feeling. And, seeing the nose once more conveniently poised in front of him, he hit it again.”
Without question, Leslie Charteris was not only poking noses, but pulling literary legs as well. In “The Melancholy Journey of Mr. Teal,” one of the stories collected in The Saint vs. Scotland Yard, Charteris offered one of his many observations indicating he wasn’t taking the thriller genre too seriously: “Thus Frankie Hornier enters the story and departs; and two men have been killed in the first four pages, which is good going.”
For my money, it’s such flourishes, along with the clever and surreal obfuscations and comic poems Templar tosses out to bewilder and amuse both his friends and foes, that raises the yarns beyond mere historical adventure artifacts. The villains are often interchangeable as are the McGuffins Templar hunts. What has dated most is the technology of the times. But the same can be said of any literary classic, say, the stories of Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Does Leslie Charteris deserve to be in such august company? Not all the time. But there’s enough in the epic of Simon Templar to make yet another round of reissues worthy of renewed appreciation for old fans and ignite new discoveries for younger readers. Try Getaway. If that old favorite trips your trigger, so to speak, perhaps you too will start whistling the Saint’s signature theme.
To hear an in-depth audio interview with Ian Dickerson about all things Saint in 2013, his Jan. 9 interview with Wes Britton for online radio’s “Dave White Presents” is archived at: http://tinyurl.com/auk48t6.