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Greatest 20th Century Action Hero

July 21, 2013


“I’ve been trying to make a picture of a man. Changing, yes. Developing, I hope. Fantastic, improbable — perhaps. Or a slightly cockeyed ideal, if you feel differently. It doesn’t matter so much, so long as you feel that you would recognize him if you met him tomorrow.” —Leslie Charteris

Most popular 20th century action hero? The Saint.

In 1926, twenty-year-old half-Chinese half-English Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin changed his name by deed poll to the shorter, more sibilant Leslie Charteris.

“I was born in Singapore, and learned Chinese and Malay from native servants before I could speak English,” Charteris explained in 1942. “My parents (Chinese doctor father; British mother) dragged me around the world three times before I was twelve and then they decided it was time I went to school. This was a mistake.”

No school could hold him. The precocious individualist began selling popular fiction at age seventeen. After placing his first novel, Charteris quit King’s College, Cambridge, to live his own life on his own terms and to be wealthy enough to get away with it.

Charteris kept writing stories while working through his personal version of the typical 20th century author’s street education: shipping out on a freighter, tending bar at a country inn, prospected for gold, went pearl-diving, labored in a tin mine and on a rubber plantation, joined a carnival and drove a bus.

The Saint was the fifth fictional hero invented by Charteris; and, in 1928, twenty-seven year-old Simon Templar breezes into an English seaside village hot on the trail of a gold smuggler in Meet — The Tiger!

Not a detective by any means, Templar is “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime,” a laughing dashing hell-for-leather buccaneer perfect for the mad sped-up Jazz Age. Handsome, superb, bantering — d’Artagnan reborn without a sword. If his pre-war British literary predecessor, Raffles, was a “Gentleman Safe Cracker,” times have changed. Post-war Simon Templar is the original Gentleman Killer. And, even more startling, he often goes to bed with pretty flapper girls, too.

He fights smiling, with a touch of poetry, like silent movie hero Douglas Fairbanks. Women see Templar’s sleeked-back dark hair and call him a Rudolph Valentino “sheik.” He is Europe’s first truly Modernist action hero, Roaring Twenties star-quality, and he comes complete with his own mocking logo, which shatters criminals with terror: a halo-ed stick figure striking a slightly effeminate pose.

Meet — The Tiger! embarrassed Charteris for the rest of his life. “I can see so much wrong with it,” he wrote in 1980, “that I am humbly astonished that it got published at all.” Charteris preferred to date the Saint’s debut from a run of brilliant novelettes published after signing a 1930 contract with Thriller — The Paper of a Thousand Thrills.

By his fifth urban showing, The Policeman With Wings, the Saint enters as an already-full-blown London public sensation. Charteris’ famous high style immediately demonstrates how to create a youthful, slightly satiric world perfectly scaled to Simon Templar in much the same spirit that, physically, Douglas Fairbanks movie sets were scaled down to make the most gracefully impressive use of his five-foot-six height.

By this time all the world has heard of the Saint. It has been estimated (by those industrious gentlemen who estimate these things) that if all the columns that the newspapers have devoted to the Saint were placed end to end, they would reach from the southeast corner of the Woolworth Building, New York, to a point seventeen inches west of the commissionaire outside the Berkley Street entrance to the Mayfair Hotel, London — which, as was remarked at the time, only goes to prove that the bridging of the gulf between rich and poor can be materially helped by the vigorous efforts of a democratic press.

The Saint’s normal conversation is a slangy stream of ad-libbed nonsense because he will not be cross-examined. One running joke has him make harmless statements sound naughty by adding “…as the actress said to the bishop.” (“You’re getting on — as the actress said to the bishop.”)

In this novelette, Leslie Charteris fully ignites the most charismatic hero in the history of action-detective fiction…

The Saint in those days had moods in which he was unwontedly sober. He was then nearly twenty-eight, and in those twenty-eight years of his life he had seen… and done more than most men would… have done in a hundred and eighty. And yet he had not fulfilled himself. He was then only upon the threshold of his destiny; but it seemed sometimes that he glimpsed wider visions through the opening door ahead. But this was not so much a dulling of his impetuous energy as the acquiring of a more solid foundation for it. He remained the Saint — the flippant dandy with the heart of a crusader, a fighter who laughed as he fought, the reckless, smiling swashbuckler, the inspired and beloved leader of men, the man born with the sound of trumpets in his ears. And the others followed him.

The pre-WW II Saint takes down bad guys, keeps a tenth of their “boodle,” gives the rest to charity, and he does this for a living. His perpetual nemesis, deceptively sleepy, fat, gum-chewing Chief Inspector Claud Eustace Teal of New Scotland Yard admits in The Gold Standard,

“We aren’t in the Saint’s class, and someday I suppose we shall have to admit it. If this was a republic we should make him dictator and get some sleep… I’ve had it out with Templar before — privately. The plain fact is he’s in the game with a few highfalutin’ ideas about a justice above the law, and a lot of superfluous energy he’s got to get rid of somehow.”

By the iron logic of public fads, each new Saint adventure must somehow top the one before. Charteris, now in his greatest years, bangs out Thriller novelettes and a series of “Brighter Buccaneer” short stories for Empire News. Finally, there seems to be no way ahead for the character. The Saint is a notorious criminal, and, however personable, the moral code of his era demands he be brought to justice.

Charteris neatly solves this dilemma in “the first big Saint novel,” 1930’s The Avenging Saint. Simon, for the first time, goes up against international terrorists, corrupt European royalty, and a high-finance war-monger. After a still-exciting mid-air airplane-to-speeding-locomotive climax, the Saint receives a full pardon for saving the King of England from an assassination attempt.

What Thirties standards of public decency could not do to dampen the Saint, the outbreak of World War II did. The Forties made impossible what Charteris called the “spurious glamor” he had created around Templar. The Saint couldn’t saunter into Berlin, pull Hitler’s nose, shoot Mussolini in the “tum-tum,” and drive away jauntily reciting to Patricia Holm a little poem of his own creation. Those days were gone forever.

So, during World War II, Simon Templar necessarily became a secret agent, just as, in the Seventies, secret agent James Bond, deprived of Sean Connery’s “spurious glamor,” became the Saint. Affable Roger Moore in no way resembled Ian Fleming’s “blunt instrument of state,” but casting  television’s internationally-syndicated Simon Templar as the new Bond revived the movie franchise by subconsciously resolving for theater audiences the paradoxical silliness of a glamorously high-living secret agent. 

The 20th century enjoyed seven Saintly decades of best-selling Simon Templar novels, novelettes, The Brighter Buccaneer short stories, Saint motion pictures in several languages (there was a French Saint), his weekly American radio show and various international television series, a long-running daily newspaper comic strip, endless paperback reprints along with, starting in 1952, month after month of The Saint Mystery Magazine.

Everybody loved the Saint. In the second half of his century, in print, Templar becomes the man at the cocktail party to whom people say, “So you’re the Saint.” His very presence promptly incites a mystery adventure. As time passes, Simon wears his years naturally and believably. Paralleling his creator’s own lifestyle, Templar, too, becomes a gracefully-aging globe-trotter who finds a pretty girl, danger, and a cash profit in every glamorous tourist attraction in the world.

Charteris penned his last stories for 1963’s The Saint in The Sun. Other writers chosen by him kept the now-sixty-two buccaneer ageless and triumphant in new novels, on television and in movies. Charteris protected his character’s core elements through every reinvention, but in later incarnations, the mocking righteous murderer blurs to suit the blander requirements of whatever media was exploiting the uncanny glamor of Simon Templar.

Leslie Charteris wrote in 1980 a preface for a commemorative reissue of — what else? — Meet — The Tiger!

There will always be a public for the old-style hero, who had a clear idea of justice, and a more than technical approach to love, and the ability to have some fun with his crusades.

That is how and why the Saint was born, and why I hope he may eventually occupy a niche beside Robin Hood, d’Artagnan, and all the other immortal true heroes of legend.

Anyway, on this date, I can say I’ll always be glad I tried.

“…As the actress said to the bishop.”

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