Friday, January 25, 2013

FFB: The Avenging Saint - Leslie Charteris

Here's another well known character who is most assuredly not completely forgotten, but I think the novels are at least overlooked these days. No doubt many people are familiar with Simon Templar in one of his many TV or film incarnations. I think I had only read one or two stories in my teen years and had never bothered with the novels. The Avenging Saint (1930) is the US paperback title for Knight Templar, the third novel featuring Simon Templar and the second part in a trilogy detailing his battle with criminal mastermind Dr. Rayt Marius. It's probably best to read all three in order starting with The Last Hero (or The Saint and the Last Hero) in order to get the true effect of the books.  Having begun with The Avenging Saint -- a bracing action-packed thriller -- I feel compelled to go back to the first before continuing onto Getaway (aka The Saint's Getaway).  The first book is frequently referenced here and the ghost of Norman Kent (the last hero of the first book's title) hovers over this second entry.  I want to know him as the man not the memory.

Simon Templar is sort of a forerunner to all the superspy characters that became all the rage in the 1960s. Though he is a direct descendant of the gentleman thief character (he starts off as a criminal with a gang of Robin Hood style thieves) I found The Saint to have more in common with hero pulp characters like Doc Savage and even James Bond.

Sonia and Vassilloff are married (UK reprint)
The story is very simple. Templar is out for revenge after one of his friends is killed at the hands of Marius, a weapons expert bent on starting the next world war. There is a kidnapping of a millionaire's daughter, an elaborate plan to arouse the ire of her oil tycoon fiancee by forcing a marriage to a Russian aristocrat. There are confrontations with the villains, daring escapes and rescues, more disguises and false beards than an Arsene Lupin book, fist fights galore, and several jaw dropping stunt sequences. I dare any reader to resist succumbing to the pull of this story.

It all sounds terribly old fashioned like something out of E. Phillips Oppenheim when I reduce it to its bare bones, but it's so breezily told with wit and verve you can't help but get swallowed up. When Templar strips naked, dives into a frigid ocean and single-handedly overtakes a motor boat by punching out one of Marius' thugs, lashing him to the wheel and then manipulating the controls with a makeshift rudder and ropes tied to the tiller while being dragged behind the boat in the water you can only marvel at the preposterous ingenuity of it all. Charteris seemed to have been a born screenwriter rather than a novelist who was decades ahead of Hollywood in terms of stunts and thrills. And he was only 23 when he wrote this book.

Simon Templar alternates between a flippant and condescending adventurer to a stern and humorless Nemesis throughout the book. He can exhibit a gleeful almost boyish attitude calling all the bad guys "sweetheart" and "old dear" in one moment then delivering an expert jab to a rogue's jaw rendering neatly unconscious with that one blow. I think he did this about twelve times over the course of the book. And there is a running gag about how he always looks immaculately dressed after all his fights. He even goes the the trouble of saving his clothes in the boat escapade by neatly tying them into bundle he ties to his head while he's steering the boat. Later, he takes that bundle apart, dresses himself on board the villain's yacht looking as if he's ready to join a posh dinner party. You have to smile and laugh at it all.

Charteris can get carried away with himself though. He has a terrible weakness for purple prose of the gaudiest kind. Here are a few examples:

"The jaws of the perambulating mountain oscillated rhythmically, to the obvious torment of a portion of the sweetmeat which has made the sapodilla tree God's especial favour to Mr. Wrigley."   (describing Inspector Teal, a large portly policeman who enjoys chewing gum)

"...and the quintessential part of the plot, so far as Simon Templar was concerned, was how soon -- with a very wiggly mark after it to indicate importunate interrogation."  
(I'd just use the question mark and forgo the cuteness)

This kind of silliness tapers off thankfully.  I made only five notations of egregious examples of these kind of indulgent lapses. The two above were the most flagrant. As I read on the purple prose either disappeared or I was no longer being critical of the lapses. It was Simon Templar himself who won me over.

Or more precisely Charteris' exuberance for Templar won me over. Whether steering motorboats with ropes while submerged in the sea or descending a rope from an airplane onto a moving train the Saint is the premiere action guy. A superhero whose only super powers are sheer guts and bravado.  Forced marriages, bondage ropes, fisticuffs and firearms, the delirious dreams of a warmonger are no match for this one man army. The world of Simon Templar may be old fashioned but I find it utterly addictive. I'm off to read more right now.

16 comments:

  1. Todd Downing gave a good review to a Saint book. Of course he had a great fondness for the Wallace-Rohmer-Oppenheim classical thriller. Didn't Roger Moore play the Saint on television for most of the 1960s?

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    1. Moore is definitely the best known of the TV and film versions of Simon Templar. Later Ian Ogilvy played The Saint in a short-lived UK series from ITC. It played in the US as well. I remember watching it when I was in high school, but it didn't compare with the Roger Moore series.

      A new TV Saint is coming this year with some of the characters fromthe early books. Adam Rayner (of whom I know nothing) is Templar, Eliza Dushku (formerly of Dollhouse) is Patricia Holm, and German actor Thomas Kretschmann is Rayt Marius. Moore and Ogivly apparently will have cameos. I'm not sure where it will be aired, but it's sure to be on cable if it's shown here in the US. You can read more about it at the excellent Saint fan website.

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  2. The Saint books are tremendous fun and it's a pity they're so seldom read these days. There have been many attempts to portray Simon Templar on both the big screen and small screen but none have quite equalled the fun of the books.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Al. I am a brand new Simon Templar fan. I really enjoyed this book -- purple prose and all. More reviews on The Saint coming in February and March. I'm doing the novels first (including the two that link up with this one) and then will work on the stories and novellas of which there are many. I was surprised to learn that Charteris even dabbled in SF. But I guess that SF and fantasy crossover should be expected in espionage books of this era with all the mad scientists that turn up as villains.

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  3. Mulholland Books in the UK will be republishing 35 Saint books in both print and digital. The first four titles are due out at the end of next month. A US publishing deal will be announced soon. And principal photography on a TV pilot for a new series of The Saint is just finishing,

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    1. Thanks, Hoppy. Imagine one of Chareteris' characters visiting this blog! I'm honored - and on my first Saint post as well.

      Great to hear about Simon Templar coming back in print. Well deserved and long overdue. It's a pain trying to find decently priced paperbacks of the Saint books. Most of my copies I acquired years ago at very affordable prices (under $4 each). Plus, they're all in excellent condition (that unretouched photo of the paperback at the top of the post is of my personal copy) compared to what is offered for sale these days. Sad.

      Didn't know that the new Saint movie was only a pilot for a series and that it hasn't yet been sold. I hope it'll be picked up by some enterprising TV people soon.

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  4. The Saint is a wonderful creation by all accounts, but I've never read any of the books. I want to but just haven't gotten around to them. Then again, I have yet to read ANTIDOTE TO VENOM even though I went and bought it immediately after reading your review, so I guess it's just par for the course.

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    1. I know you're focussing on contemporary book reviews and your James Bond marathon, Patrick. You ought to read one of these early Saint novels and do a Bond comparison. You'd be surprised how much Fleming owes to Charteris. I also think you'd get a kick out of the series. No dreary psychological backstory or religious misinformation, that's for sure! ;^)

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  5. Only familiar with the TV show and just barely that.

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  6. These books are indeed great fun. I well remember how happy I was to discover, after watching the Roger Moore TV series, that there was a book series also. My favourite was THE SAINT IN NEW YORK, probably because I found Prohibition for some reason, to be a perfect settling for a swashbuckler.

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  7. I've always been open to give The Saint books a shot, but never gotten around to them. However, this does remind me that I have one by Havank on my TBR pile and he translated nearly forty of Charteris novels, with whom he felt a kinship, in Dutch and his writing apparently influenced Havank's own work.

    This piece of trivial information was brought to you as an Educational/Public service message. You're welcome! ;)

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  8. John, you have really pushed me towards picking up the two unread books of Simon Templar. I'll probably read one of these soon and review it. The Saint is definitely one of the more unusual and interesting fictional characters I have read. I have been looking for some of the Simon Templar comics online but without luck so far.

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  9. I haven't read any of the novels. I did read The Saint Omnibus (all--or most--of the short stories) back during my first year of blogging. I recall dubbing one of the review posts as "The Saint Goes Marching Out..." Very fun stories...I've got one of the books sitting on the TBR stack. Not sure when I'm going to get to it though.....

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  10. I've never read any Saints, John, but I was very familiar with the television show never missing an episode. I also love the Saint movies with, I think, George Sanders (?) as the Saint.

    If I ever run across one of the Saint books I will definitely read it. Best I can promise since I'm assuming they cost the earth at Alibris and elsewhere. But maybe I'll double-check and be surprised. :)

    PS I added these wonderful covers to my A Vintage Mystery pinterest board here. http://pinterest.com/yvettespaintbox/a-vintage-mystery/

    As for your lending library thingy - I'm dying to read Alphabet Hicks. HINT!!

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    1. Hint taken! Watch your mailbox for incoming packages.

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  11. Watching and waiting, John. HINT! Don't toy with me, mister. :)

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