Obituary: Leslie Charteris
Tuesday 20 April 1993
IN THE LATE 1970s I wrote to Leslie Charteris asking if I could use one of his Saint stories in an anthology I was building up. He wrote back on something called a 'Note-O-Gram'. On the left-hand side of the sheet was his typed and signed (red biro) response (yes, but with a fee proviso which in the end, typically, proved too complicated to put into effect); on the right was a space in which I could type my own reply, then detach the entire sheet and return it to Charteris, leaving a pink carbon copy as a record. Which meant, if I did as I was told, I'd have no signed letter from Charteris I could then flog off to a dealer at an inflated price in the future.
It wasn't that Charteris was mean - a mean man would not have maintained a ward in the Crippled Children's Hospital in Plaistow, then, after the Second World War, sponsored the Arbour Youth Club in Stepney - it was simply that he disliked intensely the thought of anyone getting his signature merely for the price of a stamp.
A carapace of wariness and suspicion had been formed early - his mother was British, his father Chinese: his schooldays (at Rossall, in Lancashire) were thus not the happiest of his life - and hardened over the years by what he saw as the chronic depredations of greedy taxmen, the barefaced thefts of plagiarists (ironic that, considering how many Edgar Wallace plots and stylistic tics he had swiped himself when young and hungry) and a defaulting agent, as well as the casual piracies of Hollywood producers who made movies about the Saint without calling him by that name.
In the end the Saint - Simon Templar, the flamboyant and buccaneering character who spectacularly robbed the rich and the villainous and gave to the out-of-luck, the swindled, the oppressed - made Charteris into a wealthy man, although the process took a little time. After dropping out from Cambridge he had no luck prospecting for gold in Malaya or diving for pearls; back in England not much more as a bridge-player, bartender and fairground roustabout (one of whose tasks was to supply under-inflated balloons and blunted darts to one of the prize-stalls), before discovering not only that writing breathless 'actioners' for publishers who supplied superior cheap thrills to the circulating library trade paid a rather useful pounds 60 or pounds 70 a time, but that he could deliver such fodder himself, at no great effort.
He wrote five thrillers, all before his 22nd birthday, but (a businessman from the start) objected to the flat-fee-all-rights policy of the publisher. Then, in 1929, he had a year of miracles. He was invited to contribute to a new mass-market weekly the Thriller (resurrecting Templar from an earlier book), changed his publisher, and was muscularly promoted as the bright young hope of the British thriller - 'Hodder & Stoughton present Leslie Charteris . . .' boomed their publicity department. 'His work . . . is most uncommonly good.'
At this period Charteris sported a monocle, a priceless promotional prop which together with his incipient moustache, swept-back hair and eupeptic good looks did much to elevate him out of the ruck of Edgar Wallace clones in this heyday of the Wallacean thriller. Cunningly Hodders printed a large studio portrait of their debonair young author on the dust-jacket of The Brighter Buccaneer (1933), effectively blurring the line between reality and fantasy, creator and piratical creation.
The Saint was not a fusion (as commentators still insist) of EW Hornung's Raffles and Maurice Leblanc's Arsene Lupin. Charteris's influences were far more wide-ranging: the 'vagabond' novelist WJ Locke, Dumas pere, Hilaire Belloc in his 'cautionary' mode, Dornford Yates (the Saint was still using Berryisms and the Yatesian ellipsis in the 1950s), Rafael Sabatini, Sapper (although Bulldog Drummond's breezy brutality was sloughed off very early on), and, especially, Edgar Wallace. If Wallace's Four Just Men and the Ringer, or his amiable conmen such as the Brigand and the Mixer, had not existed, neither would the Saint. Nevertheless, although Charteris utilised Wallace's techniques and, in his early days and up against a tight deadline, was not averse to helping himself to the older writer's plotlines, the Saint was not the Ringer or the Brigand but a wholly unique expansion of the Wallace model, and far more politicised.
During the 1930s especially the Saint was a singularly radical, even subversive, figure, his creator exhibiting notably leftish sympathies and poking by no means gentle fun at pompous and self-seeking politicians and hubristic aristos. Other targets of his wrath were financiers, arms merchants (an early adversary of the Saint, Dr Rayt Marius, bore more than a passing resemblance to the notorious Sir Basil Zaharoff), the moguls of big business - in short, the secret and unelected governing elite - and the Saint destroys them all, either by holding them up to dreadful ridicule or simply bumping them off.
But although rich in often acute social comment the Saint stories are far from being tracts and Templar himself was never boringly altruistic: while helping others he rarely failed to help himself. And the stories themselves were often hilarious (Charteris had a happy weakness for ham actors and venal producers); like his friend PG Wodehouse, Charteris prized the English language and throughout his career had a glorious time dreaming up outrageous similes, twisting round hoary old cliches and grappling with the unlikeliest of OED arcana.
Even so it is hard to resist the notion that at times the Saint was his creator's vicarious revenge on all who had bullied him at school and later hounded him for being different. Once, in the early 1930s, he was actually pursued down Farringdon Street in London by an irate and stick-waving solicitor who resented the fact that his daughter was currently being squired by someone who 'didn't look British'. It is noticeable that lawyers are either seedy or just plain crooked in the later Saint saga.
Having virtually invented the modern 'Gay Desperado' figure, Charteris influenced a generation of thriller-writers, on both sides of the Atlantic, most of whom, alas, lacked his mastery of language, replacing linguistic pyrotechnics with a relentless facetiousness, their creations (John Creasey's Toff, Berkeley Gray's Norman Conquest, et al.) all more or less gruesome in both tone and substance.
A wise investor, Charteris needed to do little for the last 30-odd years of his life save freshen up the largely undistinguished prose of those who were translating teleplays from the various leaden Saint television series into novellas for the final dozen or so Saint books, dine out a great deal (at one stage he was a columnist for Gourmet Magazine), and tinker around with a succession of mildly eccentric fancies such as the universal sign language, Paleneo, he invented, or his surefire beat-the-bookies betting system, the 'WIN-dicator', which merely added an abundance of grey hairs to all who tried it.
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