Invisible Ink: No 106 - Leslie Charteris

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The Independent Culture

The creator of the quintessentially English stiff-upper-lipped hero, The Saint, was half-Chinese, born in Singapore in 1907.

His experiences working on a rubber plantation, in a tin mine, as a gold prospector, fairground carnie, bus driver, pearl fisher, bartender and professional bridge player gave him experiences he later used.

Changing his name from Bowyer-Yin to Charteris (chosen from a phone book), he introduced The Saint in his third novel, Meet – the Tiger! when he was 20, and went on to write nearly a hundred Saint adventures.

The Saint was Simon Templar, an unknown entity with no family or home who uses the names of Catholic saints as his false identities. Handsome and debonair, he is the world's greatest thief, but uses his powers against despots and villains. Nevertheless, the police are forever trying to put him behind bars. He leaves a calling card at the scenes of his crimes, comprising a stick figure with a halo. In the early books he battled white slavers, arms dealers and Nazis. Charteris also wrote the scripts for the globally syndicated Saint comic strips. On radio, Vincent Price played the character between 1947 and 1951.

Driven to succeed and make a name for himself, Charteris became one of the earliest members of Mensa, and invented a pictorial sign language called Paleneo. Travelling to Hollywood, he turned his hand to screenwriting and produced scripts for films such as Deanna Durbin's Lady on a Train (1945) and George Raft's Midnight Club (1933). However, he was excluded from permanent residency in the US because the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited immigration for people of "50 per cent or greater" Oriental blood.

Despite founding his own fan club for the Saint books, Charteris did grow tired of writing the stories and handed them over to the sci-fi writer Harry Harrison, editing a number of further volumes. If the Saint is remembered now, it's mainly for the TV series featuring frozen-faced Roger Moore (who occasionally broke the fourth wall to address viewers), and later The Return of the Saint starring Ian Ogilvy. The iconic theme music that was used on TV actually began in the 1930s in the RKO Saint films. Val Kilmer's portrayal in Phillip Noyce's 1997 film diverged from the books and was a flop.

It's a credit to the author's skills that a character who was little more than a cipher could become so frequently adapted. Perhaps, though, the time for adventurers has passed, as few of the books are now in print.