I FEEL rather bashful about confessing that I am a frustrated burglar, because one day my frustration system may break down, and then this could be used in evidence against me. But it has got quite a lot to do with the origin of the Saint.
It's rather difficult for me to put my finger on some exact point in history and say, "That was the moment when I conceived the Saint." It wasn't quite so simple as that. Apart from anything else, between the last Saint book and that time when he first appeared in print seven years ago, he has changed considerably.
I might go back to the time when I was about ten years old, when I held down my first and only job as editor of a magazine. I was also the printer, publisher, illustrator, and all the contributors. The magazine had a net certified circulation of two copies, one of which I sold to my mother. My father bought the other one.
In this publication I ran a pictorial serial. The characters just had little round heads, sometimes distinguished from one another by varieties of whisker, and straight lines for their bodies and arms. And now, when anyone asks me how the Saint began, I suppose this is the most fundamental answer I can give, although in those balmy days I had no idea that one of those same skeleton figures, with the simple addition of a halo, was doomed to spread its likeness through most of the countries of the world, or that in 1934 I should be able to open a letter which begins:
DEAR MR. CHARTERIS, First of all, I wish to say I am a great admirer of the Saint series, having read most of them while - doing eighteen months in Pentonville.
So instead of becoming a burglar myself, I have at least been able to bring some cheer and encouragement to others who were more fortunate. About this burglary business, by the way. This happened while I was at Cambridge, where I was supposed to be studying law, which has always struck me as a very useful subject for a burglar to take up. I was pretty bored with it—in fact, I wasn't too thrilled with the prospects of life in general. Probably most young men get these moods, and this young man's fancy lightly turned to thoughts of barratry, arson, larceny, and murder. It seemed to me that a spot of burglary or even high-class swindling might put some kick into life.
Being a fairly thoughtful bloke at the same time, though, I didn't act on this inspiration without some preliminary inquiries; so I got hold of all the books I could find on the subject—fiction and non-fiction—and began to study the subject with a lot more enthusiasm and concentration than I'd ever given to the law. And while I was browsing around, particularly in the fiction classes, it suddenly occurred to me: "This writing business looks pretty easy, and after all one must have some capital to embark on this life of crime in a big way. Let's write a book in our spare time,"
Well, I wrote a book. It was a very bad book, but it was published; so I wrote another. And another. And another. Somehow I never had time to get around to this burglary business. I've been writing books ever since, and persuading people to pay more for them than they're worth is the only swindle I've ever put over.
But some of the original inspiration remained, and when I hit on the idea of shameless sequelizing I picked the Saint for the job, because he was the character who fitted in best with my personal ideas.
He wasn't, strictly speaking, a detective—that is, he wasn't exactly associated with the police, and he didn't want to be. Not that I have anything against the police. I think they are excellent fellows for keeping an eye on pedestrian crossings and closing down night-clubs and preventing people having a drink at the wrong time and all that sort of thing, and generally adding to the perpetual hilarity of English life, but I can't feel that they are very adventurous and romantic.
And then again, he wasn't, strictly speaking, a criminal. Of course he did a lot of unlawful things, and incidentally made money out of them, but there was always a suggestion of a good cause in the background which made it seem so much more polite and gentlemanly. And he was a real adventurer. I should like to be fairly serious about this for a moment.
Here is the Saint speaking for himself, in a quotation from one of his adventures:
"You see, I'm mad enough to believe in romance. And I was sick of this age—tired of the miserable little mildewed things that people racked their brains about, and wrote books about, and called Life. I wanted something more elementary and honest—battle, murder, and sudden death, with plenty of good beer and damsels in distress and a complete callousness about blipping the ungodly over the beezer. It mayn't be true to life as we know it, but it ought to be true."
Of course, this is a personal philosophy. I don't mean that the Saint is me, any more than he is one of the readers who are probably identifying themselves with him while they're reading. He's so much more brilliant, strong, courageous, debonair, clear sighted, and invincible than any of us could ever be. But perhaps not more than we should like to be.
So I can't say that he is a portrait of anyone I have ever seen or read about, or even a composite picture of a number of people. To me he is tremendously personal, and yet in a way he is as impersonal as any character can be, because more than anything else he is only the personification of an attitude of mind.
He moves in the world of crime because that, obviously, is one of the backgrounds which are the most fruitful in problems, suspense, conflict, danger, and the clash of physical incident—the rough surface, you might say, on which a match has to be struck to produce a light. But the match is also necessary; and that match, the spirit of adventure, in its essence, is only an approach to life.
The Saint speaks again:
"Adventure never comes. You have to lug it in by the ears. You might settle down in a nice house in England for fifty years, and nothing would ever happen, A few people would die, a few people would get married, they might change over from auction to contract or back again, the man next door might run off with his wife's sister, and the grocer's assistant might run off with the till—that's all. But you won't find adventure unless you look for it, and that means living dangerously. Sometimes when I hear fools complaining that life is dull, I want to advise them to knock their bank manager over the head and grab a handful of money and run. After a fortnight, if they could keep running that long, they'd know what life meant."
I shouldn't dare to give anyone that advice myself, but I think there is something in it. My favourite proverb is a Mohammedan one which I read somewhere. It says, "Paradise is under the shadow of a sword."
I think that most men who have lived in danger— and I should back them up from my own limited experience of a few adventures—will tell you that those were the times when they were most intensely conscious of being alive. Something happens inside you which makes you realize that the rest of your life has been lived in a kind of fog. If you can think, for instance, that the meal you are going to eat, the drink you're going to have, the cigarette you're going to smoke, may be the last you'll ever know, they cease to be a commonplace and almost comatose animal action of eating, drinking, and smoking, and become a new and vivid experience. Contentment, safety, knowing just what's going to happen tomorrow—those are the things that stupefy the brain.
That is the best commentary I can offer on the Saint. I think the rest of his character falls into line with this. If he appears to have a cynical disregard of danger, an almost unseemly flippancy in the face of death, it isn't a contradiction. I've always disliked the adventure-story hero who blunders reluctantly into a lot of trouble and spends three hundred and twenty pages in a series of cold sweats and palpitations. What's the use of an adventurer who doesn't enjoy adventure? The Saint isn't hardened—he's having the time of his life. But he has accepted death as the stake long ago, and he isn't going to start making a fuss about it when the time comes to ante up.
If he is frequently induced to tilt against prudes and prigs, humbugs and common bullies, besides the larger and more double-dyed kind of villain, he's only amusing himself in the way I should do if I had his abilities. And probably in the way you would, too.
If he is often observed to turn aside in the course of a fight in order to make some acid remarks about bathing regulations, lottery laws, film censorships, dictators, the income-tax, and so forth, I've never been able to see why a crime story shouldn't have as much right to wrap up some pills in the jam as any other kind of story. The Saint has been heard to say that there are probably more burglaries per annum than there are divorces, and neither of us have ever been able to see why any book about divorces should automatically be taken seriously, while crime stories are patronizingly dismissed as very pleasant light reading, but of course not a bit true to life.
In fact, I don't think I should be giving away any secret if I admitted that we often sneak into a story with some shrewd propaganda. And we don't apologize for it, either.
About the Saint's amorous adventures, by the way, I can't speak quite so brazenly. Quite frequently I get letters from perplexed readers asking me to explain his position, and I find them very difficult to answer. In his first volume he did get very deeply compromised with a certain Patricia Holm, and since then she seems to have been permanently absorbed into his entourage, at least in so far as she's usually ready to bob up whenever he needs a feminine accomplice. But he also seems to forget her quite easily for whole books at a time, while he cheerfully improves the shining hour with some other attractive damsel who has a part in the story which is occupying his attention at the moment. And he's not so platonic, either.
I cannot explain this. And I don't propose to try. But I'm afraid it will keep on happening. Perhaps it has something to do with his philosophy of adventure and danger.
I think I should like to end up on that note. He believes in romance. He isn't merely going through the mechanical movements of a man in an exciting situation. He is, vitally and positively, squeezing the last drop of delight from living the best life he knows in the best way he can. And because of that he is finding intensified delight in the more ordinary things around him. If I could feel that some of the people reading about him were infected, even in a lesser degree, with the same supreme excitement of living, I should feel I hadn't done a bad job.
Text © 1935 Leslie Charteris-Allen & Unwin Layout © 2004 R.D. Collins
The Great Detectives
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