With novels, novelettes, and short stories spanning from 1928 to 1997 (not to mention movies, TV, comics, and radio), The Saint is one of the most enduring characters in thrilling adventure fiction. Even more amazingly, all this literary output was done under the authorship of just one man, Leslie Charteris (1907-1993), until 1964 when ghost writers started carrying the load for the popular British series. Many of the paperbacks in the series are actually two or three novellas packaged together in one volume. Today, we’ll tackle “Alias the Saint” from 1931, a collection of three novellas that originally appeared in “The Thriller” magazine in the U.K.
Simon Templar is The Saint, a nickname derived from his initials, ST. Always a charming and debonair sophisticate with a cheeky sense of humor, the character evolved over the years from a vigilante and gentleman thief (a’la Robin Hood) to a spy and all-purpose global adventurer. He solves mysteries, executes elaborate heists, wastes Nazis, and charms lots of babes. Worldwide law enforcement, particularly Scotland Yard, wants him behind bars and they are always present to warn the folk hero thief to behave himself when he arrives in their territory. However, the cops aren’t shy about enlisting his help when they are in need of a superior mind. Most of the books and stories have been reprinted many times, so you should have no problem finding loads of content if Simon Templar is up your alley.
Here are capsule reviews of the three novellas comprising “Alias The Saint.”
“The Story of a Dead Man”
This was the first published novella in The Saint series. We get to meet Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard, a recurring character in the series whose professional goal is to lock up the legendary Simon Templar. For that reason, Teal is appropriately skeptical to find Templar working in a benign London office job like a legit citizen. Templar’s droll interactions with both Teal and his coworkers make for some funny reading, and Charteris’ writing style is head-and-shoulders above his American pulp contemporaries.
By today’s standards (or even 1950s standards), the pacing is a little off. There’s way too much time setting up the characters before the mystery plot begins. Once it does, it’s a messy little tale of a dead swindling businessman. The story is more than a little confusing thanks to too many characters and subplots, but the characters are vividly drawn, and the prose is superb. It took some focus and re-reading to ensure I didn’t lose the thread.
In this one, Templar is more Sherlock Holmes than James Bond, but he gets to kick ass a couple times in the narrative coupled with some lethal gunplay. In the introduction to a newer edition, the author said that “The Story of a Dead Man” definitely isn’t his best work, but neither is it his worst. I certainly enjoyed it enough to move onto the next novella.
“The Impossible Crime”
Simon Templar has his eye on a guy running an import business who may also be a heroin smuggler for a fugitive Chicago mobster. The smuggler receives calling cards (the stick figure logo with the halo) from The Saint, so he’s understandably nervous. An opening scene in which The Saint visits the terrorized smuggler recalls something American readers may recognize from The Shadow or The Spider stories of the same era.
This core of the story is a locked-room mystery in the tradition of John Dickson Carr. Interestingly, Templar is asked by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Teal to assist in the investigation of a man shot to death in a locked room with no sign of a weapon. The victim happens to be the smuggler Templar has been investigating on his own leaving us with a whodunnit and a howdunnit.
There’s some decent gunplay, a sub-plot involving s kidnapped girl, and some genuinely funny quips from Templar. The locked room mystery is solved - twice, in fact - and the payoff is clever as hell. Overall, “The Impossible Crime” still feels a bit dated, but it’s a far better story than its predecessor in this collection.
“The National Debt”
A female chemist is kidnapped and forced into indentured servitude by some crooks with an evil plan, and The Saint goes undercover to investigate the matter and rescue the woman. The challenge is that the woman doesn’t seem to want to leave. Is she hypnotized? Drugged?
More interestingly, the question remains what the kidnappers want with the chemist and what is she developing for them? It’s a mystery to be solved by Templar, and it’s also the strongest of the three stories in this collection despite a rather abrupt conclusion. The action veers a bit into Doc Savage territory without becoming too cartoonish on the journey.
It would be totally unfair to judge a wildly popular mystery-adventure series that lasted 70 years on the basis of this collection of the character’s first novellas. However, I actually enjoyed this introduction to Simon Templar even if the novellas failed to live up to the promise of the lurid cover art found on reprints decades later.
The Saint is a fantastic character, and I’m excited to read more of his later adventures after Charteris found his footing. I’ve been told that “The Saint in Miami” from 1940 is a high watermark in the series. Watch this space in the future for more on this iconic series.
You can buy 'Saint' novels HERE