Now, I was never a great fan of Roger Moore as James Bond, but I always though he was just perfect as The Saint. His insouciance, rather inappropriate for Ian Fleming's "blunt instrument", was just right for Leslie Charteris's Simon Templar. Where Bond's flippancies as delivered by Moore undermined the suspense (such as it was--to be fair, Moore got more of the weaker scripts than was his due), Templar's were inherent to the character's modus operandi.
The books are trifles--light, airy stories, with a good sense of humor and a fair amount of whimsy.
Except for the trilogy, that is.
After two typically breezy entries, Charteris wrote The Last Hero (1930), a novel in which the stakes suddenly rise, and the Saint and his gang of saints find themselves confronted with a precursor to the atomic bomb, a debonair but cold prince,and the Saint's Moriarty. That last is the gigantic Dr. Rayt Marius, who wants the weapon to start a second World War, to the profits of the international cartels he represents. (Yes, a tiny whiff of anti-semitism enters Charteris's novel in one paragraph, I'm sorry to say, with the Saint referring to the real villains as "the big men, the secret moguls of Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange, the birds with the fat cigars and the names in -heim and -stein, who juggle the finances of this cockeyed world." Appalling, but when I was a boy and first read the book, it passed right over my head; I only noticed it this on my recent re-read of an e-book edition, and was grieved.)
Confronted with the prospect of another war, the Saint, whose motto hs previously been "Into battle, murder and sudden death, good Lord, deliver me!" reaches a different conclusion:
The Saint turned his eyes to the painting over the mantelpiece, and did not see it.And so the Saint and his friends--Roger Conway, Norman Kent and Patricia Holm, the woman he loves, take on the odds.
"If we do nothing but suppress Tiny Tim [Marius]," he said, "England will possess a weapon of war immeasurably more powerful than all the armaments of any other nation. If we stole that away, you may argue that sooner or later some other nation will probably discover something just as deadly, and then England will be at a disadvantage."
He hesitated, and then continued in the same quiet tone.
"But there are hundreds of Tiny Tims, and we can't suppress them all. No secret like that has ever been kept for long; and when the war came we might very well find the enemy prepared to use our own weapon against us."
Once again he paused.
"I'm thinking of all the men who'll fight in that next war, and the women who love them. If you saw a man drowning, would you refuse to rescue him because, for all you know, you might only be saving him for a more terrible death years later?"
There was another silence; and in it the Saint seemed to straighten and strengthen and grow, imperceptibly and yet tremendously, as if something gathered about him which actually filled every corner of the room and made him bulk like a preposterously normal giant. And, when he resumed, his voice was as soft and even as ever; but it seemed to ring like a blast of trumpets.
"There are gathered here," he said, "three somewhat shop-soiled musketeers-and a blessed angel. Barring the blessed angel, we have all of us, in the course of our young lives, broken half the Commandments and most of the private laws of several countries. And yet, somehow, we've contrived to keep intact certain ridiculous ideals, which to our perverted minds are a justification for our sins. And fighting is one of those ideals. Battle and sudden death. In fact, we must be about the last three men in the wide world who ought to be interfering with the makings of a perfectly good war. Personally, I suppose we should welcome it-for our own private amusement. But there aren't many like us. There are too many-far too many-who are utterly different. Men and boys who don't want war. Who don't live for battle, murder, and sudden death. Who wouldn't be happy warriors, going shouting and singing and swaggering into the battle. Who'd just be herded into it like dumb cattle to the slaughter, drunk with a miserable and futile heroism, to struggle blindly through a few days of squalid agony and die in the dirt. Fine young lives that don't belong to our own barbarous god of battles. . . . And we've tripped over the plans for the next sacrifice, partly by luck and partly by our own brilliance. And here we are. We don't give a damn for any odds or any laws. Will you think me quite mad if I put it to you that three shabby, hell-busting outlaws might, by the grace of God . . ."
He left the sentence unfinished; and for a few seconds no one spoke.
Then Roger Conway stirred intently.
"What do you say?" he asked.
The Saint looked at him.
"I say," he answered, "that this is our picnic. We've always known-haven't we?-at the back of our minds, dimly, that one day we were bound to get our big show. I say that this is the cue. It might have come in any one of a dozen different ways; but it just happens to have chosen this one.
And the last hero is not the Saint; it's Norman Kent. Kent, who is wounded in a standoff between the Saint's gang and Marius and the Prince's forces, along with a British Secret Service operative named Harding, manages to convince his friends to leave him behind, with the secret of the weapon, to be delivered to Marius and the Prince a half hour after they get away. Kent out bluffs not only the Prince, but Simon and the rest, too, and sacrifices his life for his friends:
A smile touched Norman's lips. He didn't mind being left alone now that his work was done. And he knew that Harding could not have stayed. Harding also had work to do. He had to find help-to deal with Marius and intercept Simon Templar and the precious papers. But Norman smiled, because he was sure the Saint wouldn't be intercepted. Still, he liked the mettle of that fair-haired youngster. . . .Now, one may fault the prose and the plotting--Charteris is still learning his craft here--but this is, compare dot what came before and after, a wildly ambitious book. The Saint is ousted as the hero by the taciturn, unassuming Norman (who also loves Patricia); there's no merry con going on, but a desperate fight--Templar is unusually ruthless here--and the Saint loses. Gallant, but futile, all his efforts.
His leg hurt like blazes.
But the Saint had never guessed the impossible thing. That had been Norman Kent's one fear, that the Saint would suspect and refuse to leave him. But Norman's first success, when he had tricked Harding with the offer of the papers, had won the Saint's faith, as it had to win it. And Simon had gone, and Patricia with him. It was enough.
And in the fulness of time Simon would find the papers; and he would open the letter and read the one line that was written there. And that line Norman had already spoken, but no one had understood.
"Nothing is won without sacrifice."
Norman turned again, and saw the automatic in Marius's hand. There was something in the way the gun was held, something in the face behind it, that told him that this man did not miss. And the gun was not aimed at Norman, but beyond him, at the flying figure that was nearing the motor-boat at the end of the lawn.
That gentle far-away smile was still on Norman Kent's lips as he took two quick hops backwards and to one side, so that his body was between Marius and the window.
He knew that Marius, blind, raging mad with fury, would not relax his pressure on the trigger because Norman Kent was standing directly in his line of fire; but Norman didn't care. It made no difference to him. Marius, or the Prince, would certainly have shot him sooner or later. Probably he deserved it. He had deliberately cheated, knowing the price of the revoke. He thought no more of himself. But an extra second or two ought to give Harding time to reach comparative safety in the motor-boat.
Norman Kent wasn't afraid. He was smiling.
It was a strange way to come to the end of everything, like that, in that quiet bungalow by the peaceful Thames, with the first mists of the evening coming up from the river like tired clouds drifted down from heaven, and the light softening over the cool, quiet garden. That place had seen so much of their enjoyment, so much comradeship and careless laughter. They had been lovely and pleasant in their lives. . . . He wished his leg wasn't giving him such hell. But that would be over soon. And there must be many worse ways of saying farewell to so full a life. It was something to have heard the sound of the trumpet. And the game would go on. It seemed as if the shadows of the peaceful evening outside were the foreshadowings of a great peace over all the world.
It's Norman who saves the day, by the simple expedient of recognizing that the only winning gambit required the sacrifice of a piece, and offering himself as that sacrifice.
The next novel, Knight Templar (1930), continues the story, but the scale is smaller; Norman's death casts a pall, and Simon seeks revenge. Then, four books later, the final clash with the Prince occurs in Getaway (1932). Two years later, in The Misfortunes of Mr. Teal, we find out the end of Rayt Marius. Charteris moves on. We lose Patricia Holm, Roger Conway, even the comic valet Orace. The later books are funny, fast-moving, con stories.
But the shadow of Norman Kent, for a brief period, gave the series a depth it lacked before and after that ghost was laid to rest, and the Saint never really learns the lesson: "Nothing is won without sacrifice."