This page contains occasional book reviews and thoughts on books and reading.
Enter the Saint by Leslie Charteris
I watched reruns of The Saint in the late 1960s. As a child, the debonair exploits of this modern-day Robin Hood delighted me and satisfied my simple sense of justice. I had never, though, read one of Leslie Charteris’s Saint books — books produced with an almost production line efficiency from 1928 to his death in 1983. The last fourteen novels were ghostwritten, but supervised by Charteris ala James Patterson today.
For the 1930 club, I choose Enter the Saint, which consists of three novellas, or, as Charteris notes in his introduction, “novelettes” — he thought the term novella contained “traces of a lofty preening.” Charteris was twenty-two when this was published, yet it was his seventh book, and second Saint book, although the opening story, “The Man Who Was Clever,” was the first story Saint story written “at length.”
The story opens with microcosm of a Simon Templar story: in the first pages Templar meets three thugs on a train, they attempt to fleece him in a poker game, but, of course, The Saint (Simon Templar) turns the tables, wins the game, and then beats up the thugs. The thugs on whom Templar wreaks revenge are the henchmen of a drug kingpin, who Templar has been plotting to destroy. It’s no spoiler to note that he succeeds, and that, along the way he saves a wayward Cambridge man. The recurring theme of the Saint novels — absolute justice, delivered extra-judicially — might well be Charteris’s literary revenge for being bullied early in life. In one incident, he was walking a woman down a London street when her father, a lawyer, chased Charteris away, irate that his daughter was escorted by someone who “didn't look British.” Apparently a reference to Charteries’s heritage: The Singapore-born Charteries was christened Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin, his father was Chinese.
While by no means a slog because the story zips along, the pedestrian prose grates, especially when there is little else to recommend the story. Charteris, himself, said the story “has no particularly brilliant originality of plot.” I could tolerate the prose if there were something unique about the book: Agatha Christie, after all, is no stylist, she succeeds because of her brilliant plotting. Charteris’s workmanlike writing displays none of the freshness and wit of his contemporary and friend P.G. Wodehouse. Instead Enter the Saint is written in a style so dated that the suspension of belief necessary for reading is often punctured, it reminds in every sentence that one is reading something manufactured for enjoyment. In Enter the Saint we are told things again and again, with little background, character, or atmosphere revealed by action. To avoid this, Writers of today’s genre fiction are cautioned to write in a cinematic way, as if the scene were playing out in front of a camera, and they are admonished to “show,” never “tell.” Although the stories in Enter the Saint are not cinematic in their telling, they do read like a story treatment ready to be transferred to film or television. A casting director could easily read
“Mr. Ganning was a tall, incredibly thin man, with sallow features and black hair that was invariably oiled and brushed to a shiny sleekness. His head was small and round, and he carried it thrust forward into the full stretch of his neck.”
and envision a particular actor. In noting this, I am reminded of Anthony Burgess’s suggestion in an essay on what makes a “Good Read” (reprinted in Ink Trade: Selected Journalism 1961-1993) that much nineteenth-century fiction would never have been written if television had existed. “Having seen 24 instalments on BBC TV,” he writes” of The Idiot, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Portrait of a Lady, and about 48 installments of The Forsyte Saga, I feel absolved from taking the originals down from the shelf.” Indeed, Simon Templar seems more real in the 1960s television series with Roger Moore than in the novels. In addition, the dialogue often thuds: “That’s not my afraid,” said the Saint bluntly.
“And if it comes to that, son, I’m not a philanthropic institution, I happen to want an assistant, and I propose to make use of you. Not that you won’t get anything out of it. I’m sufficiently interested in you to want to help ou, but you’re going to pay our way.”
I’m not sure anyone talks like this. Lastly, on a minor prose note: I have never heard the word “microscopical,” yet it was used four times in Enter the Saint! Based on the Oxford English Dictionary I think the word is slightly misused here.
One might argue that all genre fiction ages. Perhaps, but in a fascinating article in the December 2018 London Review of Books, John Lanchester explores how genre fiction becomes dated. He argues that Agatha Christie has aged well because she was limited as a writer. Contemporary mystery novelists like Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers wrote much better prose, but also tried to highlight social and cultural issues of the time — issues that are now settled, questions that no one would even ask today, and so jar when addressed.
To be fair to Charteris, Enter the Saint did divert under non-ideal reading conditions. While I wanted something meatier and deeper from 1930 — I had my heart set on re-reading, after thirty years, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or delivering a thoughtful review of The Man Without Qualities, a book I have returned to many times — I have the distraction of two young children. One of whom, as I write, lies on the floor crying, while the other draws on a piece of paper with a permanent marker, and so I must glance at him every fifteen seconds or so because at any moment he could turn into a tasmanian devil, whirling around the house inking the refrigerators, kitchen cabinets, walls, or his crying brother. Under these trying (and tiring) conditions I was able, unchallenged by Charteris’s prose or plot, to enjoy some reading.
Written October 12, 2019