LESLIE CHARTERIS – The Saint in New York. The Saint #15. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1935. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1935. Avon #44, US, paperback, 1944. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback. Note: A shorter version appeared in the The American Magazine, September 1934.

THE SAINT IN NEW YORK. RKO, 1938. Louis Hayward, Kay Sutton, Jonathan Hale, Sig Ruman, Jack Carson, Paul Guilfoyle, Frederick Burton, Ben Weldon, Paul Fix, Leon Belasco. Screenplay: Charles Kaufman & Mortimer Offner, based on the novel by Leslie Charteris. Directed by Ben Holmes.

   Inspector John Fernack of the New York Police Department is fed up with the rampant crime plaguing the city when he vents to the Commissioner.

   â€œThere’s times when I wish I knew a guy like this Saint was here in New York—doing things like it says in that dossier,” he said. “There’s times when for two cents I’d resign from the Force and do ’em myself. I’d sleep better nights if I knew there was things like that going on in this city.”

   And as Fernack is going to learn sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.

   The Saint in New York is not my favorite Saint novel, but I will be the first to admit it is likely Charteris’s best novel, and it was certainly the best film adaptation of the character and his work despite his own dislike of the film.

   Not surprisingly Simon Templar’s arrival in New York also ushers in a considerably tougher, even hard-boiled version of the Saint, who had been around almost a decade when the novel was published in 1934. Indeed, the book itself was heavily censored in its early magazine and newspaper serialization, close to emasculated, because the full thing is a wild ride full of bursts of gunfire and violence, breathless escapes from impossible traps, cold blooded killings, the kidnapping of an innocent child, and the kind of retribution the Saint is famous for. There is also a beautiful and sexy femme fatale who is not only a match for the Saint, but possibly even wilder than the adventurer himself.

   The plot is that old favorite about the citizens committee that decides to clean up the city by extra legal means, in this case persuading one of its members, one Valcross, to find and hire Simon Templar to eliminate six of the big time racketeers terrorizing New York. Simon takes the job and arrives in New York with typical Saintly verve notifying his victims they are on his list.

   â€œIt goes back to some grand times—of which you’ve heard,” he said quietly. “The Saint was a law of his own in those days, and that little drawing stood for battle and sudden death and all manner of mayhem. Some of us lived for it—worked for it — fought for it; one of us died for it…There was a time when any man who received a note like I sent to Irboll, with that signature, knew that there was nothing more he could do. And since we’re out on this picnic, I’d like things to be the same—even if it’s only for a little while.”

   Not too long after he polished off Irboll the Saint is captured and taken to the lair of yet another of his victims, and it is there he finds the kidnapped little girl and first meets the beautiful and enigmatic Fay Edwards, who is connected in some mysterious way with all the men on his list.

   Escaping and rescuing the little girl with typical Saintly elan the Saint finds himself entranced by Fay Edwards even as he moves on his next victim.

   Eventually he meets Fay and he discovers that behind the six men he has been sent to kill is the Big Fella, the mastermind who with Fay’s help recruited the six criminals and who meticulously planned all their crimes, He also learns the big payoff is due soon when the Big Fella plans to split the profits — to a much smaller group than originally planned thanks to the Saint.

   I’m not going to pretend this one takes much effort for any mystery reader to figure out. Even in 1934 the villain should have been pretty obvious, which is why Charteris, who must have been well aware of this, never lets the action falter, never give the reader a chance to catch his breath, and piles incident upon incident in one of the most sustained action novels of its type ever penned.

   His trembling hands went up as if to shield himself from the stare of those devilish blue eyes.

   â€œDeath,” said the Saint, in a voice of terrible softness. “Death is my racket.”

   The Saint gets his man, the femme fatale meets the fate of most her kind, and the Saint and Inpector Fernack develop a much different relationship than the one he has back home with Inspector Teal.

   You know how it is, prophets in their own land.

   Charteris was working at Paramount when RKO bought the rights to his novel and the Saint came to the screen for the first time. Despite Charteris’s caveats, Louis Hayward is far and away the most Saintly of film Saints, hard edged but smooth, dangerous, suave, funny, and closer to the actual character in the books than any actor before or since. The scenes between he and Kay Sutton are not only well written, they are damn sexy considering when the film was made.

   There is a first rate cast with Jonathan Hale as Fernack, Kay Sutton as Fay, and a who’s who of bad guys that include Sig Ruman, Jack Carson, Paul Guilfoyle (as a semi comic team of killers Red and Heimie), Paul Fix, and Ben Weldon. The screenplay is fairly close to the book, certainly capturing the tone of the books better than any since, and the action is well staged.

   Granted it looks a little cheap here and there, and it could all be done a bit smoother, but it is the genuine Saint we are seeing in action, not the rather bored George Sanders or the dull Hugh Sinclair, and not the late much more sedate version television gave us (true to the later stories and novels in the series, there being almost as many versions of Simon Templar as there are of Ellery Queen).

   Whatever it’s flaws, you can imagine Hayward in white tie and tails singing to a Bobby beneath a street light or leaping through a window guns blazing — which he does at least twice in this film. Unlike later Saint’s he even makes use of his knife though he doesn’t seem to have named them.

   Some of the Sanders films are fun, and Hayward made an interesting if not entirely successful return to Sainthood in The Saint’s Girl Friday twenty years later. There is at least one French adaptation of a Saint novel done without Charteris’s permission (The Dance of Death (1960) with Felix Marten and based on “Palm Springs”) and available with the hero’s name changed.

   And of course there was the much loved Roger Moore series, a second series with Ian Ogilvy, a failed pilot, a series of made for television films with Simon Dutton, the Val Kilmer film, and a 2013 pilot with Adam Raynor (available on Netflix). That doesn’t include comics, comic strips, and the radio series that starred Vincent Price and later Brian Aherne as the Saint, but this is far and away the closest to Leslie Charteris’s vision of the character, making it ironic that he disliked it and Hayward so much, but I suppose when his ideals were Cary Grant and Rex Harrison anyone would be a letdown.

   Whoever plays the role next, I’m willing to bet it will be with less than half the verve and style Hayward brings to the part in his American debut as a leading man. For one time, and one time only, he was the Saint, the real one, not the rather wan imitation we have gotten since, and that is something Saint fans have every right to treasure.