The Saint’s Getaway by Leslie Charteris, first published 1932, 250 pages, ISBN 978-1558820845
For the song and the sword and the Pipes of Pan
Are birthrights sold to a usurer
But I am the last lone highwayman
And I am the last adventurer
Like so many serialised literary characters – such as James Bond or Sherlock Holmes – Simon Templar has outlived and outshone his creator. Leslie Charteris (originally Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin), though, has some claim to having lived the life he based his character on.
Simon Templar started life as a particularly effervescent vigilante and … drifted. His adventures have him defrauding drug dealers in ’30s England, stopping a plot to start a second world war in 1930, moving to the US to assist the war effort by spying for the US government, before returning to England to raise hell. The dialogue is witty, the descriptions breathtaking, and the in-your-face banter is a breath of fresh air next to all those all-to-serious meaning-of-life books. The Saint knows who he is and is blithely untroubled by suggestions to the contrary as he biffs the ungodly. He chain smokes, he drives at unsafe speeds, he mocks the police and – against every principle of free-booting buccaneerhood – he has a regular girlfriend (although, he was somewhat modern in his approach).
“Boy, listen – weren’t you going to be good?”
He paused in his stride, and turned. He smiled dreamily upon her. In his ears, the scuffling undertones of the battle were ringing like celestial music. He was lost.
“Why – yes, old dear,” he answered vaguely. “Sure, I’m going to be good. I just want to sort of look things over. See they don’t get too rough.” The idea took firmer shape in his mind. “I – I might argue gently with them, or something like that.”
Charteris believed that life could be significantly more exciting if lived entirely according to your own passions and interests. And Charteris was determined to explore the world. He prospected for gold, fished for pearls, worked in a tin mine and on a rubber plantation, toured England with a carnival, and drove a bus. He visited as many parts of the world as he could. His character could do no less.
And, yes, it is all larger-than-life fantasy. Simon Templar of the books is the character the movie James Bond became (he was a bit of a wet as a book).
He approached the battle thoughtfully and circumspectly, like an entomologist scraping acquaintance with a new species of scorpion. In that murderous jumble it was practically impossible to distinguish one party from another; but 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.
I started reading Saint stories when I was a young and terribly sickly 8-year-old. I started with Enter the Saint and have collected more than 30 books (Charteris wrote over 100 stories, the last book being published in 1983). They were heaven for a child who never thought he’d live long enough to experience the world. They made the world magic. Who knows, maybe they inspired him to live?
Charteris’ descriptions of the world didn’t glamorise violence. If anything, quite the opposite. The world was a seedy, dirty, dour place (especially with the post-war depredations of Europe) but the Saint – through sheer force of personality – could make everything exciting. Charteris, writing in one of his frequent philosophical asides, declared that a bore would see no adventure in meeting an adventurer and an adventurer would completely fail to relate to a bore. Your enjoyment of sky-diving, mountain climbing and traveling to remote parts are exciting to some and terrifying to others who project their fears onto you when they tell you, “Well that seems terribly dangerous, I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Charteris was not enamoured of laws constraining human activity. In one of his frequent asides his gorge rises: “We live in a wonderful country. Did you read how two policemen and one policewoman practically lived in a night-club in Brighton for about three weeks, drawing their wages from the ratepayers all the time and drinking gallons of champaigne at the ratepayers’ expense, until they finally managed to lure some poor fathead into the place and get him to buy them a drink after time? And that’s what we pay taxes for. Our precious politicians can go to Geneva and swindle the Abyssinians with all the dignity of a gang of bucket-shop promoters, and slap the poor deluded Spaniard on the back and tell him he’s just dreaming about Italians and Germans helping the rebels in his so-called civil war; but the honour of England has been vindicated. A bloke is fined fifty quid for selling a whisky and soda at half-past eleven and another bloke is fined a fiver for drinking it, two policemen and one policewoman have had a wonderful free jag and helped themselves towards promotion, and the world has been shown that England respects the Law. Rule, Britannia.”
Psychologists, from whom no secrets are hidden, tell us that certain stimuli may possesses such ancient and ineradicable associations that the reactions which they arouse are as automatic and inevitable as the yap of a trampled Peke. A bugle sounds, and the old war-horse snorts with yearning. A gramophone record is played, and the septuagenarian burbles wheezily of an old love. A cork pops, and the mouths of the thirsty water. Such is life.
And even so did it happen to the Saint.
He was even a bit of a libertarian economist (at least when it came to beer). “Why can’t they make beer like this in England?” he ponders of German beer, and then answers: “Because of your Aunt Emily. In America they have total prohibition and the beer is lousy. In England they have semi-prohibition, in the shape of your Aunt Emily’s wall-eyed Licensing Laws, and the beer is mostly muck. This is a free country where they take a proper pride in their beer, and if you tried to put any filthy chemicals in it you’d find yourself in the can. The idea of your Aunt Emily is that beer-drinkers are depraved anyway, and therefore any poison is good enough to pump into their stomachs – and the rest is a question of degree.” This was 1932, before Hitler.
The series (at least until the last he wrote himself – The Saint in the Sun) is everything you can hope for in pulp fictional adventuring. Simon Templar is an exciting character irrespective of the age in which he finds himself. And Charteris’ obvious delight in writing the stories carries even hum-drum plots. Yet Charteris had a thorough understanding of the world in which he placed his character.
His descriptions of New York in the years immediately after prohibition and the ways that gangs evolved and adapted to keep their crime syndicates going shows astonishing insight. His tales of Europe in the early 1930s, between the world wars, give a terrible sense of foreboding and impending doom. And the Saint isn’t bullet-proof or untouched by events. He loses, sometimes, is scarred. Close friends die.
After all, he had done nothing desperately exciting in a long time. About twenty-one days. His subconscious was just ripe for the caressing touch of a few seductive stimuli. And 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 squish 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 the feeling. And, seeing the nose once more conveniently poised in front of him, he hit it again.
For the quality of the writing. For the delight of the author and of the Saint in life and living. For the penetrating asides and insights into human frailties. For a small sickly boy sitting in bed dreaming that the world is limited only by our imagination and our own outrageous excitement for living.
He had not been mistaken. His subconscious knew its stuff. With the feel of that second biff a pleasant kind of glow centred itself in the pit of his stomach and tingled electrically outwards along his limbs, and the remainder of his doubts melted away before its spreading warmth. He was punching the nose of an ugly main, and he was liking it. Life had no more to offer.
Categories: Scroguely Works