LESLIE CHARTERIS – The Last Hero.

International Polygonics Library; paperback reprint, November 1988. Previous editions: Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hc, 1930. Doubleday Doran & Co./The Crime Club, US, hc, 1931. Plus: Ace/Charter, pb, 1982. Also published as: The Saint Closes the Case, Sun Dial, 1941; Fiction Publishing Co., pb, 1967. And as: The Saint and the Last Hero, Avon #544, 1953.

CHARTERIS The Last Hero

   A fairly complicated publishing history, in other words, and itís far from complete. But itís not nearly as complex as the history of The Saint as a character himself. This has generally been considered the second Saint novel, but after reading the Wikipedia entry (under Simon Templar) I am certainly willing to go along with the now accepted chronology: that Meet Ė the Tiger! was first, and Enter the Saint (consisting of three novellas) was second.

   My own exposure to The Saint was through the stories that appeared in every issue of The Saint Detective Magazine when I was in my teens and shortly beyond. The stories came from every time period and in no order whatsoever, so thinking of how The Saint first came on the scene and developed as a character would have been impossible, even if Iíd have seriously considered doing so.

   From reading The Last Hero at this much later date, and matching my thoughts up with several of the online histories of The Saint, itís clear in retrospect that Charteris was still tinkering with the character, revising and improvising details as he went along, creating as he did a back story that may (or may not) have stayed constant all the way through the remaining books and collections — nearly a hundred in all.

   Iíll not bore you with details, as Iíd probably get them wrong, and besides, thereís a book by Burl Barer called The Saint: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Film and Television 1928-1992. (MacFarland, 1992, 2003) that if youíre interested, will get them right. I donít have a copy, and I will have to get one.

   There is also a humongous website devoted only to The Saint that deserves more exploring than Iíve had a chance to do so far.

CHARTERIS The Last Hero

   You may remember the IPL cover to the left as one that has appeared here before. The cover from Avon edition (below right) features Patricia Holm, the love of Simonís life, fairly prominently. The third one (above right) is from a set of Saint novels that came out when the Roger Moore TV show was playing in the US.

   I donít particularly believe that the title The Saint Closes the Case is apt at all, since the villain, a wealthy arms dealer named Dr. Rayt Marius, manages to survive, only to appear in a few more of the Saintís adventures, along with his patron, the brutally ambitious Crown Prince of some small unnamed European country.

   I said brutally ambitious, and I meant it. In 1930, the clouds of war were beginning to form once again, and it was easy for readers of the day to believe that ruthless profiteers like Marius and the Prince did for a fact exist. Once Simon Templar learns of a mad scientistís new invention, a veritable death ray machine, he knows that if it were to fall into the wrong hands, or even the right hands, the world would not be likely to survive.

   The solution? Kidnap Professor Vargan, confiscate his plans, persuade him to destroy his weapon Ė or suffer the consequences. There is no bluff on The Saint’s part. He may have his usual devil-may-care attitude about him, but heís not joking. He and his small group of comrades in arms are deadly serious.

   This group of friends includes the previously mentioned Patrica Holm, who gets kidpanned in return, to The Saintís dismay; Roger Conway, new to the business and prone to error; and Norman Kent, the titular hero:

   From the prelude, page 13: ď…and it is also the story of one Norman Kent, who was his friend, and how in one moment in that adventure held the fate to two nations, if not of all Europe, in his hands; how he accounted for that stewardship; and how, one quiet summer evening, in a house by the Thames, with no melodrama and no heroics, he fought and died or an idea.Ē

   From Caroline Whitehead and Geroge McLeod, Knights Errant of the Nineeteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, Chapter 5:

    ďNorman Kent is an archetypal knight errant. Though formally a man of 20th Century England, he lives (and dies) by the Code of Chivalry. He loves totally his Lady, Particia Holm – who, like Don Quixote’s Dulcinea, is not aware of that love. He is totally loyal to his Liege Lord, Simon Templar. Like Sir Gawain in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, Norman Kent takes on the threats to his Lord. Not only physicial threats to life and limb, but also the sometimes inavoidable need to take dishourable acts which would have reflected badly on the reputation of King Arthur/Simon Templar is taken on, wholly and without reservation, by Sir Gawain/Norman Kent.Ē

CHARTERIS The Last Hero

   Heady stuff that, then and now, although there are things here about which the reader is not totally aware while the book is in progress. [Nothing essential, but to ease my mind, please forget that you just read it.] After a slow beginning Ė as the author sorts out his primary characterís affairs, for perhaps the benefit of himself as much as more the reader Ė this is an adventure nearly without equal. The prose simply sings. On his way to rescue Pat, taken from pages 152-153:

    ďHe smashed through the traffic grimly, seizing every opportunity that offered, creating other opportunities of his own in defiance of every law and principle and point of etiquette governing the use of His Majesty’s highway, winning priceless seconds where and how he could.

    ďOther drivers cursed him; two policemen called on him to stop, were ignored, and took his number; he scraped a wing in a desperate rush through a gap that no one else would ever have considered a gap at all; three times he missed death by a miracle while overtaking on a blind corner; and the pugnacious driver of a baby car who ventured to insist on his rightful share of the road went white as the Hirondel forced him on to the kerb to escape annihilation.

    ďIt was an incomparable exhibition of pure hogging, and it made everything of that kind that Roger Conway had been told to do earlier in the evening look like a child’s game with a push-cart; but the Saint didn’t care. He was on his way; and if the rest of the population objected to the manner of his going, they could do one of two things with their objections.

    ďSome who saw the passage of the Saint that night will remember it to the end of their lives; for the Hirondel, as though recognising the hand of a master at its wheel, became almost a living thing. King of the Road its makers called it, but that night the Hirondel was more than a king: it was the incarnation and apotheosis of all cars. For the Saint drove with the devil at his shoulder, and the Hirondel took its mood from his. If this had been a superstitious age, those who saw it would have crossed themselves and sworn that it was no car at all they saw that night but a snarling silver fiend that roared through London on the wings of an unearthly wind.Ē

   If you canít read that without getting the least bit of thrill, please try taking your pulse again.

[UPDATE] 02-23-08:    I thought you might like to see this:

Hirondel