(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Leslie Charteris’s first novel, X Esquire, appeared in 1927 and was quickly followed by Meet the Tiger (1928), the first of the series that would make its author famous. It took some time, however, for the Tiger to evolve into the Saint. Charteris required another two years and another three novels to develop this character satisfactorily. When Charteris began writing Saint stories for The Thriller in 1930, Simon Templar had finally settled into a personality that would catch the fancy of the reading public.

To begin with, the hero’s name was masterfully chosen. Along with other connotations, the name Simon suggests Simon Peter (Saint Peter), foremost among the apostles and an imperfect man of powerful presence. The name Templar reminds the reader of the Knights Templar, twelfth century crusaders who belonged to a select military-religious order. Thriller fiction at the time Charteris began to write was replete with young veterans of World War I who were disillusioned, restless, disdainful of law and social custom, and eager for any adventure that came to hand. Simon Templar was very much a member of this order. Like the Knights Templar and the outlaws of Sherwood Forest, the Saint and his fictional colleagues set out to rout the barbarians and foreigners. The villains of many thrillers of the period were foreigners, Jews, and blacks. Charteris certainly adopted the convention, and for this reason it has been remarked that his early novels sometimes had a racist, fascist cast to them.

“The Million Pound Day”

In chapter 1 of “The Million Pound Day,” the second of three novelettes in The Holy Terror (1932), the Saint saves a fleeing man from a black villain, clad only in a loincloth, who is pursuing him along a country lane. The black is perfectly stereotypical. He is a magnificent specimen physically but is savage and brutal. He exudes primeval cruelty, and the Saint “seemed to smell the sickly stench of rotting jungles seeping its fetid breath into the clean cold air of that English dawn.” The reader should not, however, make too much of such passages. Racial and ethnic sensibilities have been heightened considerably since 1932, so that the chauvinism and offhand use of racial epithets found in the work of some of the finest writers of Charteris’s generation (for example, Evelyn Waugh) are quite jolting to the modern reader.

On the other hand, Charteris himself was something of an outsider in those days. Although he often deferred to the prejudices of his readers, his work contained a consistent undercurrent of mockery. Simon Templar mixes effortlessly with the members of the ruling class, but as often as not, his references to them are contemptuous. Like a Byronic hero, his background is mysterious, romantic, and essentially classless. It is significant that, during a period in which most fictional heroes are members of the officer class with outstanding war records, Simon Templar has no war record.

“The Inland Revenue”

An example of how the Saint—and Charteris—tweak British smugness is found in “The Inland Revenue,” the first of the novelettes in The Holy Terror. As chapter 2 opens, Simon Templar is reading his mail at the breakfast table. “During a brief spell of virtue some time before,” Templar has written a novel, a thriller recounting the adventures of a South American “super-brigand” named Mario. A reader has written an indignant letter, taking issue with Templar’s choice of a “lousy Dago” as his hero rather than an Englishman or an American. The letter writer grew so furious during the composition of his screed that he broke off without a closure. His final line reads, “I fancy you yourself must have a fair amount of Dago blood in you.” Templar remarks with equanimity that at that point the poor fellow had probably been removed to “some distant asylum.”

The earlier Saint stories are marked by such playful scenes. They are also marked by a considerable amount of linguistic playfulness and ingenuity. For example, Charteris often peppers the stories with poetry that is more or less extrinsic to the plot. In chapter 3 of “The Inland Revenue,” Templar is composing a poem on the subject of a newspaper proprietor who constantly bemoans the low estate of modern Great Britain. He writes of this antediluvian:

For him, no Transatlantic flights,Ford motor-cars, electric lights,Or radios at less than costCould compensate for what he lost By chancing to coagulateAbout five hundred years too late.

The Saint’s disdain for authority is more pronounced in the early books. He dispenses private justice to enemies with cognomens such...

(The entire section is 2021 words.)