A while back I reviewed a gritty, realistic-feeling spy novel by John Le Carre. The book I am discussing today is the precise polar opposite.
I speak of “The Saint in New York,” part of a long-running, very popular fiction series by Leslie Charteris. The series began in tne 1930’s, encompasses dozens of books and is represented at pretty much any reputable used book store.
The Saint is the nom de guerre of Simon Templar, a lone wolf adventurer who works whicher side of the law seems best at any particular moment, depending upon whatever aims he is pursuing. The Saint has all the requisite skills of a cat burglar, a super spy, a detective, a seducer. He was Bond before there was a Bond. He wisecracks even when the bad guys pummel him, goes boldly forth without a real plan while counting on his improvisational genius and overworked good luck to get hm out of jams.
He is portrayed as pretty much perfect, and Charteris tosses realism aside to just let the Saint be the Saint. Even Templar himself seems bemused at how easily he overcomes The Ungodly, his term for those he seeks to defeat.
Rafael Sabatini’s swasbuckler heroes are often damned near perfect, but not as perfect as as the Saint. Templar is sometimes dubbed “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime,” but one suspects that were their chronological sequence reversed, Little John and the rest would have fought with “the Simon Templar of Merry Olde England.”
In “The Saint in New York,” Templar leaves his home in England to take down a nest of crime and corruption in New York. He has a list of names, a willingness to rub these men out and a chance to earn a million bucks doing it. He launches into the affair with his typical devil-may-care attitude, with barely a plan but a truckload of confidence, and goes forth to do battle.
This book, one of the few featuring a full novel rather than a collection of shorts or novellas, actually has Simon fall afoul of his own recklessness. Our hero gets bloodied, and nearly loses his life, but, of course, he prevails in the end.
These books are rather dated today, but frankly, that is part of their charm. Sure, the gangster dialect is corny and even difficult to read at times. Sure, the Saint’s rather whimsical banter in the face of danger is implausible. Sure, the Saint and his creator love to show off their vocabularies.
And yet … sometimes this kind of escapism is exactly what I need. Justice is served, by a guy who goes against the odds and bests them, taking down the Ungodly and having fun doing it. It’s a hell of a ride. So I recommend this series to people who like an old-school mystery-thriller that probably never would be published today, but which ruled the bookstands back in the day. Pick up a book, forget politics and work and chores for a while, and let the Saint show you how the Ungodly should be confronted.