REVIEW: The Last Hero – Leslie Charteris

1990s reprint cover, image from Amazon

1990s reprint cover, image from Amazon

(originally published 1930)

Leslie Charteris (the pseudonym of Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin) was born in 1907 and published his first novel in 1927, when at university. He was the author of many books but is most famous for the creation of ‘The Saint’ Simon Templar, who swaggered his way through many novels, novellas and short stories between 1928 and 1983. The first of the ‘Saint’ books – which was Charteris’s third novel – was Meet the Tiger in 1928, followed by Enter The Saint (a collection of three novellas) and The Last Hero in 1930. Charteris wrote ‘Saint’ books up to 1963 and thereafter collaborated with other writers (including Harry Harrison), and wrote screenplays and the comic strip version of the Saint. Most famously, the Saint stories were made into television series in the 1960s starring Roger Moore as Templar, but several films were also made (including one in 1997 starring Val Kilmer, which bore very little resemblance to the original character or plots).

The earlier books feature Templar and his confederates fighting criminals, international arms dealers, and other such; later, during the war years, the Saint lost his companions in adventure and his base in London to work in the US and on behalf of the American government. Later still, the Saint would travel round the world, frustrating knavish tricks wherever he encountered them, taking on forgers, swindlers, gangsters, and others of the same ilk, whilst lounging in a debonair fashion through life.

Confusingly, several of the titles were changed on republication or for American editions – Boodle, for example, as The Saint Intervenes, Knight Templar as The Avenging Saint, Once More the Saint as The Saint and Mr Teal, and so on. It does make collecting the titles a little complicated.

In The Last Hero, as in several of the early books, Simon Templar gets involved in this adventure almost by chance, his attention piqued by a brief report in a newspaper and something spotted on the way home to London from a day out in the Surrey countryside with his girlfriend, Patricia Holm:

Simon Templar was cursed, or blessed, with an insatiable inquisitiveness. If ever he saw anything that trespassed by half an inch over the boundaries of the purely normal and commonplace, he was immediately fired with the desire to find out the reason for such erratic behaviour. And it must be admitted that the light had been no ordinary light.

(p27, 1948 reprint)

The light, he discovers, is that of a new sort of instrument of death, designed and built by scientist K. B. Vargan, and which he is demonstrating to a trio from the British government. The Saint is not the only person to be interested in the demonstration, for in escaping from the garden where he and Patricia have been watching, they come across a giant (to whom Templar refers satirically as ‘Angel Face’ when recounting the adventure to his confederates Roger Conway and Norman Kent the following morning), and whom they realise must be millionaire Rayt Marius, a man who’s “supposed to have arranged half a dozen war before, on a minor scale, to the interests of high finance…” (p48).

After their discussion, the four agree, albeit reluctantly, with Templar’s decision that, to prevent Vargan’s invention getting into the wrong hands – even those of their own government, and particularly those of Marius – they must kill Vargan. How they try to carry out this intention and thwart Marius is retold in The Last Hero.

Unlike the later books, in which the Saint operates almost alone, or sometimes with the assistance of dim thug ‘Hoppy’ Uniatz, the Saint is aided in his endeavours by his friends. Conway and Kent are not as fast-thinking or brilliant in execution as Templar, but they do play their parts – Kent, as intimated in the prologue, does considerably more than that. Likewise Patricia Holm isn’t only the helpless woman needing rescue: she’s intelligent, courageous and loyal (Holm also confounds expectations of the time by living with Templar without being married to him, and in fact refuses his proposal in a later book).

The Saint sets out his stall fairly early on in the novel in explaining his motivations: he and his friends would revel in battle and war, but there are far too many men and boys who don’t want war and shouldn’t be “herded into it like dumb cattle to the slaughter, drunk with a miserable and futile heroism, to struggle blindly through a few days of squalid agony and die in the dirt…” (p46).

There’s a great, fast-moving, thriller plot, in which gains are turned into reverses, and reverses into victories, through simple actions and clever deductions. There are several car chases, scenes of house-breaking, and several occasions where the villains appear to hold all the cards. Charteris also likes to add moments of humour, and indeed the Saint is rarely serious, coming up with limericks at times of stress and inevitably mocking his adversaries with quick wit and insult. But there is real heroism in The Last Hero, and the last portion of the book is astonishingly moving.

I do enjoy Charteris’ books and stories: the Saint deals inventively with criminals, often by liberating them of considerable amounts of cash, but other stories are less straightforward. Charteris is adept at disguising the real villains of a story, but the Saint usually is quick to determine the real motives behind the stories he’s told. His characters don’t seem to age at all, though their adventures are set in the era in which they were written. One of the short stories in The Saint Around the World, for example, has the Saint meet Marian Kent, niece of Norman, so it implies that at least fifteen years and more have gone past since the events of The Last Hero, though Templar is not portrayed as much older than his mid-thirties.

Most of the Saint books are comprised by novellas and short stories, with few novels, but Charteris wrote all three forms very well, sustaining the tension through the longer form, and establishing character and scene very succinctly in the shorter form. I have a – by no means complete – collection of the Saint books, and The Last Hero is one of my favourites; mostly, I think, because of the character of Norman Kent. Kent is a good deal more serious than Templar, and is affected by the things he has to do much more than his friend; he’s quicker than Conway to pick up the Saint’s allusions and train of thought, and is able to plan in his chief’s absence. In fact, in the last part of the novel, it’s he who’s the protagonist of the action, with the Saint taking a subordinate role for a change.

Another thing I particularly like about the early books is the character of Patricia Holm. She first appears in Meet the Tiger, and plays a significant role in The Last Hero, and appears to a greater or lesser extent in several books. She’s brave and intelligent, and so far from trying to restrain Templar from some of his wilder schemes, plays her part in them, though she can be critical of him. She’s evidently independently wealthy, since there is no indication in the text that she’s a ‘kept woman’, for example, and she also has a life outside of the one she shares with the Saint. It’s interesting to speculate what she does outside of Saintly adventures and once she disappears from the books. Although she does make appearances as the damsel to be rescued in a couple of books, including The Last Hero, she isn’t ever a passive character.

Charteris suffers from a tendency to make his male villains physically ugly in some way – as does Ian Fleming in the Bond books, for example – though he can turn the tables and portray female villains as beautiful: Eve Lavis in The Pluperfect Lady (in The Saint Around the World), for example, or ‘Straight’ Audrey Perowne in The Lawless Lady (in Enter the Saint). Unlike writers of his time, such as Fleming or Dornford Yates, for example, his books aren’t snobbish or particularly class conscious: the criminals are portrayed negatively, but not by casting racial slurs on them.

There have been a couple of collections of Saint short stories published recently (2008) by Hodder, and they are as good a way as any of getting to know the Saint and enjoy his adventures.

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7 Responses to REVIEW: The Last Hero – Leslie Charteris

  1. Nice piece…can I also add that Mulholland have been busy reprinting the original books in the UK. See for more.

    • Ela says:

      Thanks for the comment, Ian, and the link: I’d really like to read the earlier Saint books – Meet the Tiger, in particular.

      • Sadly Leslie’s Estate wouldn’t let us reprint Meet the Tiger, so we had to start with Enter the Saint. Mulholland are only reprinting the first 35 titles, whereas Amazon in the US will be doing all 49.

      • Ela says:

        That’s a shame – I gather Charteris rather disowned ‘Meet the Tiger’ in later life, so I assume that’s why. I will have to find a secondhand copy instead.

  2. Really enjoyed the review Ela, especially as Charteris’ world is one I only know through adaptations on film, TV and radio having never actually sampled the books – sounds like I have been missing out!

    • Ela says:

      The Saint books are well worth reading for pleasures other than plot – Charteris has a lot of fun with the English language, and he writes very fluently and directly, yet can do beautiful description.
      I did say in my review that Charteris is rarely racist, but that’s not strictly true – it was my poor memory. I’ve just re-read ‘The Death Penalty’ in The Saint and Mr Teal, and Abdul Osman (admittedly a pretty nasty character) is described in appalling terms.

  3. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere: November 2013 | Past Offences

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