Featuring the Saint by Leslie Charteris

Featuring the SaintPhil: Last week I looked at a character many people will only know from the big screen. This week,it’s one firmly from television. Coincidentally, both were played by Roger Moore.

The Saint is harder to pin down than James Bond. Bond works for MI6, Simon Templer (his initials provide his nickname) is an independent gentleman adventurer. Bond is firmly on the side of the law, Templar less so. Early novels had him a thief but like most characters, as the war approached, he joined up and did the descent thing fighting the axis powers. By the time we get to the three stores in “Featuring the Saint”, Templar is on the right side of the law even if he meats out punishment as he sees fit.

As I read the book, two things struck me. The first is that The Saint and Sherlock Holmes have an awful lot in common. Like Holmes, Templar is infallible, annoyingly so in my opinion. There is never a fight he does not win. No plan is too preposterous. He is a master of martial arts, flying, driving and pretty much anything else he wants. Despite this, he maintains membership of a number of London gentleman’s clubs and appears often enough for half of the city to know who he is. To be honest, this all seemed a bit smug. Holmes at least has a limited sphere of operation whereas The Saint roams the world at will so I found it difficult to believe in the character.

Second, the stories have dated badly. There is the casual racism common in the period between the wars. We don’t generally use the phrase “doing the white thing” for someone performing an honourable act for example. Worse, the storytelling veers between a Dr Watson style narrator and a third-person narrative to occasional first person point of views. Unlike Watson, we aren’t told who the narrator is, except that it sometimes seems to be Charteris. This is at odd with the forwards before each story. Perhaps without these, everything would make more sense.

I never warmed to Templar. Maybe he is from a time now long gone when crime was less random. A man operating on the margins of the law could have a chat with Inspector Teal from Scotland Yard (presumably in an office down the corridor from Inspector Lestrade), wear the best clothes and operate with impunity. I keep drawing parallels with Holmes and perhaps this is part of the problem. The great detective lives firmly in the Victorian era, a time very different to today. Templar operates in the halfway house between the wars that seems a little unreal – both modern and old-fashioned at the same time.

Charteris recognised this and one of his forwards, comments that he considered updating the stories for their 1961 re-publishing but decided that the results would be a complete re-write and it was better to leave them as period pieces. Was he right to do this? I’m not sure. I’d be interested to read an updated version but suspect that it would need a considerable amount of work. These stores were even pulpier than the Bond tales. The hero wins and there is no doubt about this from the outset or at any point in the narrative.

All this is good stuff for the wanabee writer. Reading a book and spotting things you don’t think will work saves the bother of making the same mistakes yourself. Every cloud has a silver lining as they say.

Featuring the Saint at Amazon

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