The Saint and the Five Kings:
Or How the Saint Became Saintly
A Literary Speculation in Saintliness by David Vineyard

   You can be well versed in the saga of Simon Templar, the Saint, Leslie Charteris’s creation, have read all the books and short stories by Charteris and others, seen all the movies and television episodes, have followed his adventures on radio, in the long running comic strip written by Charteris and drawn by Mike Roy, and later John Spanger and Doug Wildey, and his own comic book featuring newspaper reprints and original material by Charteris, and still not know the story of the Saint and the Five Kings. That is because the Five Kings never appeared between the covers of an actual book, but only in the Saint stories appearing in the British pulp magazine The Thriller, commencing with issue number 13 dated May 4, 1929.

   The Five Kings make their auspicious debut with this line:

   â€œSnake” Ganning was neither a great criminal nor a pleasant character, but he is interesting because he was the first victim of the organization known as the Five Kings…

   If that sounds familiar, it is because when is saw print in hard covers from Hodder and Stroughton a year later in 1930 as Enter the Saint, a key change had been made. The title of the story had been changed from “The Five Kings” to “The Man Who Was Clever” and the “organization known as the Five Kings,” now read “the organization led by the man known as the Saint.”

   You would not know what the Saint was to mean to The Thriller and its success in this early issue. There is no stick figure with a halo on the cover or inside the magazine, and while the Saint is identified as the Saint in the story no mention of him as an individual is made anywhere in the promotion, nor is that rectified for the rest of the year despite the appearance of the rest of the stories that comprise Enter the Saint and the two Saint novels that follow, The Last Hero, aka The Saint Closes the Case, and The Avenging Saint. The closest the Saint gets to headlining is in a story entitled “The Return of the Joker,” as the Saint is the fifth king, or Joker.

   Earlier that year two J. G. Reeder stories comprising Edgar Wallace’s Red Aces had appeared, and at that point it was Edgar Wallace that was the backbone of The Thriller, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see that Charteris’s Five Kings is very much a variation of Wallace’s Four Just Men, with each man hidden by a King in the deck of cards and the Saint behind the Joker.

   Patricia Holm is even along as the Queen to these five kings and Claude Eustace Teal and even the Saint’s man ’Orace, and in every other way the Saint is the Saint, you just wouldn’t know it based on the copy on the cover or inside the covers. Even the previews don’t mention the Saint, only the Five Kings.

   I’ve found few changes between the story as they appear in The Thriller and the stories in book form, save for that emphasis on the Five Kings by the magazine and by Charteris, and it is clear the selling point, though never stated, is “here is another series along the lines of the Four Just Men.”

   Of course the stories are nothing like Wallace’s Four Just men stories, and other than the Five Kings themselves the Saint is closer to Charteris’s other model, Bulldog Drummond, than Edgar Wallace in most matters. However much Wallace influenced Charteris’s subject matter, he is much closer to Raffles, Arsene Lupin, Sexton Blake, Oppenheim’s Peter Ruff, Drummond, Dornford Yates, John Buchan, and Anthony Hope than even Wallace’s Edwardian gentleman adventurers like the Brigand.

   Early on the Saint even encounters a mad scientist with a gas that dissolves a live goat that more than resembles the fate of Robin Bishop’s small dog in Sapper’s The Final Count, but even then the Five Kings are still getting better press than the Saint however much he dominates the story.

   Knowing how long it takes for reader reaction to be gauged by a magazine in terms of sales and letters, it is possible that it isn’t until Enter the Saint, the first collection of stories after the Saint’s debut in Meet — the Tiger that Simon Templar and his little stick figure avatar began to appear on the cover and in the interior of The Thriller.

   Since none of the stories in the magazine appear in book form under the same title and have those minor variations, and the Saint himself is not mentioned in any of the advertising in 1929, it would be entirely possible to miss him, especially since two other Charteris’s heroes appear in the magazine the same year only to fade into obscurity, while receiving equal weight in terms of promotion by the magazine. however.

   I’m trying to think of another series where a character so successful took that long to be recognized, but other than the 19th century French newspaper serial character Rocambole by Ponson du Terrail, and Nick Carter who started as the boy detective companion to Old Seth Carter, I’m coming up blank.

   Certainly other characters changed notably as their series went on. Good examples of this are Allingham’s Albert Campion and Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. But as clear as it is reading the stories that they are about the Saint and always meant to be about the Saint and no one else, but reading the copy surrounding them you would be hard put to guess that.

   Still, you have to wonder what would have happened if that first book after Meet — the Tiger had been titled Enter the Five Kings? Would a saintly career have been cut short?