LESLIE CHARTERIS – The White Rider. Ward Lock, UK, hardcover, 1928. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1930. Reprinted in Detective Classics, US, February 1931 and later serialized in Detective Weekly, UK. February 25 through June 24, 1933.

   Lestrange played half a dozen bars of “Annie Laurie”; and then, tothat tune, he commenced to improvise cheerfully.

“Oh Wiltshire’s braes are bonnie,
Where sadly fails the ’tec —
But he never finds out nothing;
He’s just a rubberneck,
He’s just a rubberneck,
Is Mister Kenned-ee,
And to lay his hands on the Rider,
He would lay-ee him down to dee.”

   There may not be anyone named Templar about, but I would lay odds just about any thriller fan or fan of popular literature in general could identify the author of that immortal bit of musical doggerel at thirty paces in the worst London fog in history.

   The White Rider is Leslie Charteris second novel of derring do and his first to feature an outright bandit hero. (His previous protagonist, Terry Mannering, X Esquire, was more in the Bulldog Drummond mold, right down to throttling deserving villains in his strong hands.)

   Peter Lestrange, who likes to play the piano and lounge about being witty is made of the same steel, but with a decidedly lighter touch. Not that he is quite Saintly material, in fact he often drips of Dornford Yatean seriousness, but even the Saint never galloped about the Wiltshire countryside dressed in white on a gray horse to battle crime.

   As our adventure opens, one Selden, the dope king, has died, and rumor has it somewhere on his estate Sancreed, most likely in the manor house, there lies the remains of his ill gotten gains, which sweet and lovely stepdaughter Marion wants none of. Into this comes waltzing Bill Kennedy of the Yard (“one of the big four” in his previous appearance in X Esquire) with American cop Jimmy Haddon in tow.

   Peter Lestrange is the lounging neighbor with eyes for Marion, who thinks he is better suited to save the day in the guise of the White Rider than any policemen, and this being Charteris, he’s right, though Kennedy has more than a few IQ points on Claude Eustace Teal.

   Three deaths happen in short order as the gangs gather to loot the spoils. Bracebridge, a fence, Henderson one of Kennedy’s men, and notably the disreputable scientist Chatham, who took orders from a mysterious voice on the phone and took it upon himself to kidnap and torture Marion, only to pay for his over enthusiasm when Marion is rescued by the Reverend Theophilius Gregory, who is doing a bit of amateur crime detection too (a good paper is yet to be written about the role of good reverends in popular fiction of the Twenties and early thirties — from Carl Peterson on, they are seldom up to any good or like Russell Thorndyke’s Dr. Syn they are decidedly unreverend like in action).

   This is very much Charteris feeling his way toward an epiphany, and he still doesn’t get it quite right in the next novel, Meet the Tiger, that serves to introduce us to the Saint, but not quite. Another hero followed in The Bandit, a colorful South American type, Ramon Francisco de Castilla y Espronceda Manrique (we can all be grateful he failed — imagine trying to crowd that on a paperback cover) before 1930 and the very original true Simon Templar took the field in the pages of The Thriller and then those yellow covered Ward & Lock editions.

   Peter Lestrange is a nice try, but no cigar. The White Rider has its moments, but the hero is offstage being mysterious too often, and I never did quite understand what the purpose of the White Rider business was in 1920’s England save the hero had a gray horse and couldn’t lounge and play the piano all the time. There were enough perfectly good roads and fog to make a white roadster more practical, and Peter could have gotten just as good results as an insulting amateur sleuth than as a masked bandit.

   Historically this novel is significant, as entertainment it is fair, as Charteris it is minor, and as a harbinger it is practically prophetic, but I wouldn’t really suggest anyone add it to their essentials list save collectors and completest. Far better to dip into the Saint saga at your favorite point and again experience the one and only.