Updated: Jan 22
When I mention the name Simon Templar, you may think of Roger Moore and the television show that was a preamble to his stint as Ian Fleming's 007. Or perhaps you remember the 1997 Val Kilmer movie, or the series of RKO Radio Pictures films made between 1938 and 1941, starring Louis Hayward, George Sanders, and Hugh Sinclair. You might even think of Vincent Price's interpretation of the character on radio in the 1940s. But, if you asked me who my favorite Saint is, I'd have to say the one in the books written by Leslie Charteris.
The Saint first appeared in print in 1928 in Charteris' novel MEET THE TIGER, and spanned a book series that lasted until 1983. I first met the Saint when I picked up the VCR tapes of the RKO Radio Pictures films out of the bargain bin at my local video store, and instantly fell in love with the adventures of Simon Templar. As my foray into the Saint extended into the books, I was thrilled to find a whole new world of adventure, as well as a Simon Templar I had not yet met.
The Saint of the Leslie Charteris' novels is quite different from that of the television show, movies, and radio shows. Although Simon Templar in all forms was cool and debonair, the Saint of the books had a dark, ruthless side that, unlike his television and movie versions, was willing to destroy the lives of the "ungodly", and even kill them if necessary. This was a side of the Saint that Hollywood was never quite comfortable portraying on the big or small screen.
It was Charteris' character that introduced me to the broader world of noir from writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Patricia Highsmith. But, I always find myself returning to the adventures of the "Robin Hood of modern crime." The Saint books, which have been out of print for a number of years, were re-released in recent years, making it possible for a new generation of readers to meet Simon Templar. Here are four of my favorite Saint novels.
THE SAINT IN NEW YORK, by Leslie Charteris
In this 1935 novel, the Saint is at his most ruthless and cold-blooded. Hired by a rich American to clean up a criminal organization that had been terrorizing New York City, Simon Templar becomes a one-man army against a group of gangsters led by the mysterious "Big Fellow." THE SAINT IN NEW YORK has everything you'd expect from a noir novel. Gangsters, corrupt politicians, kidnapping, betrayal, an inscrutable but unforgiving hero, and a dark and mysterious femme fatale.
This was the first of Charteris' novels that I had the pleasure to read, and it has become a favorite that I often return to. This is an excellent introduction to the character for readers who have never delved into the series before. The Saint, in this novel, is charming, suave, dangerous, and ferocious. He is just as likely to direct a witty insult toward a gangster assassin when facing sudden death as he is to sweep the illusive femme fatale into his arms for a kiss. And he holds firm to his creed that the "ungodly" must pay for their crimes, especially when going after the ringleader of the gang, the Big Fellow.
This book happens to be the first to have been adapted for the big screen in 1938, starring Louis Hayward as Simon Templar. Although the film stayed faithful to the main plot points of the book, it never really captured the true essence of The Saint. For instance, in the film the Saint shoots an accused cop-killer during an attempted assassination of another cop. In the book, Templar has no misgivings about murdering the gangster in cold-blood for no other reason than as punishment for his earlier crimes.
THE SAINT'S GETAWAY, by Leslie Charteris
This 1932 novel is an adventurous romp across the European continent, with the Saint and his companions alternating between chasing and being chased by the villainous Prince Rudolf. What starts as a well-deserved holiday in Austria, becomes a fast-paced cross-continent race for a cache of stolen diamonds. THE SAINT'S GETAWAY features two recurring characters from the early Saint novels. The first is Patricia Holm, the Saint's love interest through many of the early novels. Patricia has a spirit for adventure like the Saint's, and although not as ruthless, can be a force unto herself when in danger. The other is Prince Rudolf, an antagonist who has faced off with the Saint in two books prior to this one.
The story, which takes place over a twenty-four hour period, is filled with non-stop action and intrigue. And, according to Charteris' introduction in the mid-1960s reprint of the book, THE SAINT'S GETAWAY serves as the third novel in a trilogy that began with THE SAINT CLOSES THE CASE and THE AVENGING SAINT. Luckily for readers, it isn't necessary to read the first two books to enjoy the excitement of THE SAINT'S GETAWAY.
This was another of the Saint novels that was adapted for film by RKO Radio Pictures. Retitled THE SAINT'S VACATION, the film starred Hugh Sinclair as Simon Templar. The film changed several major plot points, including the swapping out the cache of diamonds for a music box that contained government secrets. Also noteworthy is the absence of Patricia Holm from the film.
VENDETTA FOR THE SAINT, by Leslie Charteris
This novel, published in 1964, was credited to Leslie Charteris, but actually authored by noted science fiction author Harry Harrison. VENDETTA FOR THE SAINT has the distinction of being the first Saint novel written by someone other than Charteris. Leslie Charteris decided to step away from actively writing the series, but remained heavily involved in the editing and story development. However, don’t let this fact sway you from reading this phenomenal entry in the Saint series. This novel contains all the elements of a classic Charteris story.
VENDETTA FOR THE SAINT is set in Sicily with the Saint on his most dangerous adventure yet, taking on the Italian mafia. Simon Templar remains ageless through out the series and his suave charisma and ruthlessness is the same in this book as it was in the earliest novels published thirty years prior. Templar is on his own in VENDETTA FOR THE SAINT, but that doesn't deter him from stepping into danger without any form of back up. It is a race across the Italian countryside for the Saint as he tries o outsmart his heavily armed Mafia pursuers.
THE SAINT CLOSES THE CASE, by Leslie Charteris
The last book on my list is the third book in the Saint series, published in 1930 under the title THE LAST HERO. Unlike the two Saint novels that came before it, THE SAINT CLOSES THE CASE is not straightforward crime fiction, and borders on the edge of science fiction and spy fiction. But don't let that deter you from picking up this fantastic novel. The science fiction element is so miniscule that you'd barely even notice it once the story gets rolling.
Unlike the later novels in the series, THE SAINT CLOSES THE CASE features Templar's gang, who worked closely with him to bring down the forces of the "ungodly." Templar's compatriots were devoted to him, even willing, in one case, to give up their lives for the cause for which they all fought. That devotion is evident throughout this novel as Templar takes on the villainous Rayt Marius and Prince Rudolf. It is that singular allegiance to the Saint, as well as his ideals, that makes this book an absolute thrill to read. The Saint and his motely crew, in this novel, fight not for king and country but for the decency of all mankind by trying to stop a self-serving scientist from selling his new weapon of mass destruction to the highest bidder.