As I explain in the introduction, I've always been a huge fan of the Saint. This is what I wrote:
Like most young readers back in the Sixties and Seventies, I was introduced to The Saint through TV – in my case the black and white show starring the single eyebrow-raising pre-Bond Roger Moore and his very cool white Volvo.
I bought my first second hand Saint book from Altrincham market in South Manchester – The Saint Versus Scotland Yard. I was eight, and I think I was simply too young for The Saint. I made several stabs at reading it but couldn’t get beyond a few pages. The books are, after all, for adults. But back then the choice was either the likes of Enid Blyton or full-blown adult books. There were no wizard schools or junior James Bonds, no lovelorn vampires dating High School girls, there were kids books and there were adult books; the so-called YA (young adult) market had yet to be created.
I went back to Charteris two years later when I was ten and it all clicked into place. I was hooked. Over the next year I went to Altrincham market every weekend and would exchange a handful of Superman and Batman comics from my treasured collection. Now financially I almost certainly did swap the family cow for a handful of beans. The second-hand books have long since gone and the comics have probably increased in value a hundred fold, but I’ve never regretted the trade.
One of the reasons I love Thanks To The Saint is that it was written in 1956 – the year that I was born. Whenever I pick up my copy and see that date, I feel a connection – as I came kicking and screaming into the world, Leslie Charteris was celebrating finishing his latest book and planning the next one. And I love the fact that it’s a collection of short stories. It’s an oft-repeated fact in the publishing business that collections of short stories don’t sell as well as novels. But as a youngster I always preferred the short stories because I could read a complete story before bedtime, and yes it was the cliché of using a torch under the covers so that my parents wouldn’t know that I was still awake.
Leslie Charteris took me to a world I never knew existed, thought to be honest it’s a world that probably never did exist. I didn’t just want to read about the Saint or watch the TV show - I wanted to BE the Saint. More than anything. Seriously. I wanted to travel the world and have adventures. I remember designing a stickman logo based on my initials and stamping it on all my books. And as I read my way through all the stories, I tried to work out how I could become The Saint.
And therein lies the problem – the lack of a backstory. I could never work out how Simon Templar became The Saint. Did he go to university? Did he ever have a real job? Where did acquire his criminal skills that came in so useful when he was being shot at or chased or having to use his fists to defend himself. And - more importantly to the young me in Manchester who rarely had two pennies to rub together - where did Simon Templar get his money from? How did he fund his jet-setting lifestyle?
I never found out, of course. There isn’t much of a backstory in the novels. The only attempt made to explain The Saint’s beginnings came in the awful Val Kilmer movie of the same name, but that can safely be ignored.
The Saint came from nowhere, which was very frustrating for the pre-teen me that was trying to map out his own life. The Saint never had a paper round, never stacked shelves in a supermarket, never worked in a garage or picked potatoes on a farm. Deciding what subject to study at university was a struggle – what would The Saint have studied? Safecracking, fisticuffs and seducing beautiful women wasn’t an option. I settled for Biochemistry.
Years later I realized that not only didn’t The Saint exist, he couldn’t exist. He was as fictional as Harry Potter and Hogwarts. Anyone poking fun at the police in the way that Simon Templar does would be fitted up and behind bars quicker than you could say ‘Police And Criminal Evidence Act’. And you can’t steal from gangsters, or make them look stupid. Gangsters kill people and intimidate witnesses and often get away with it.
Most of The Saint books that I read in the Sixties and Seventies had been written many years earlier – some of them in the Thirties. But they didn’t seem dated then and the stories work just as well now.
Take this from Thanks To The Saint - "Don't ever get one thing wrong," he said. "I never robbed anyone who wasn't a thief or a blackguard, although they might have been clever enough to stay within the law. I've killed people too, but never anyone that the world wasn't a better place without. Sometimes people seem to forget it, since I got to be too well known and had to give up some of the simple methods I used to get away with when I was more anonymous, but my name used to stand for a kind of justice, and I haven't changed."
That is such a cool paragraph, a paragraph that could slot into the latest Jack Reacher novel - or indeed any of my thrillers – and not look out of place.
Some things date, of course. I’m not sure if I’d get away with using a word like “blackguard”. Cars don’t have running boards any more. The Saint fights like an English gentleman, with his fists and never hitting a man when he was down. Simon Templar beds women with gleeful abandon with no thought of reaching for a condom. He’s from a time without mobile phones, DNA tests or CCTV.
I love the fact that Simon Templar smokes – and enjoys smoking. One of my continuing characters – Jack Nightingale – is a big fan of cigarettes and in many ways that’s a homage to The Saint. I vividly remember how The Saint escaped poisonous gas in a cellar by filling a wine bottle with soil and breathing through it. Would it work? My scientific training says probably not but I have tucked the information away just in case I ever find myself trapped in a basement full of poisonous gas.
Looking back at my life so far, I just realized that in many ways I did get to get the Saint’s life. I work when I want to work, and to be honest writing thrillers isn’t a hardship. I can pretty much fly into any major city and call up someone I know and take them to dinner. I’ve fought in karate tournaments and crawled through the tunnels used by the VC outside Saigon. I drink with cops and villains and spies and movie stars. I’ve been threatened by the police in five countries and been slammed against a nightclub wall by a major drugs dealer who thought I was asking him too many questions. I can sail a boat and fly a plane (and have jumped out of a few.) I can scuba dive and I’ve fired guns and thrown the odd hand grenade. I’ve sailed halfway around the world on a cargo ship for no other reason than I wanted to. I’ve climbed into cars with strangers and driven off to bars that I’ve never heard off. I’ve been threatened by gangsters and I’ve had a gun pointed at me and a broken glass thrust at my throat. In many ways I’ve had the life I’ve had because of Leslie Charteris and the books that he wrote. Admittedly I’ve never sat alone in a casino and been approached by a beautiful woman who needed my help but hey, there’s still time.