Let Us Now Praise the Saint

In The Honorary Consul (1973), Graham Greene has one of his characters observe, “There were no detective stories in the age of faith. . . . God used to be the only detective when people believed in Him.  He was law.  He was order.  He was good. . . . It was He who pursued the wicked man for punishment and discovered all.”  That deficiency of detective stories in medieval times has been corrected by the likes of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael and Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew.

Since the faith of that so-called Age of Faith survives into our day, there have been fictional twentieth-century detectives who were not only men of faith, but also men of the cloth.  Among the most famous are G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling.  From its invention in the early nineteenth century by Edgar Allan Poe, detective fiction has attracted millions of steadfast adherents, and in the twentieth century there appeared a fictional detective who combined a moral compass with a roguish streak.

In 1928 Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) created Simon Templar, also known as the Saint.  Templar was instantly and intensely popular, featuring in dozens of short stories and novels and also in comic books, radio dramas, theatrical films, and television series.  The books were out of print but have been revived, thanks to the diligent effort of Ian Dickerson.  Just as the books are again in print, some of the movies, radio programs, and television shows are available on-line and commercially.

Templar became known as “the Robin Hood of modern crime.”  A master of disguise and a deft jewel thief, he turned to righting wrongs by developing a skill for, as Charteris put it, “swindling the swindler.”  The stories take Templar from London to New York, Rome to Palm Springs, and show him again and again outwitting the bad guys, dubbed by him “the ungodly.”  Charteris thus adapted the old adage about setting a thief to catch a thief.

Charteris set forth Templar’s creed perhaps most concisely in the story “The Man Who Was Clever,” collected in Enter the Saint (1930):  “We Saints are normally souls of peace and goodwill towards men.  But we don’t like crooks, blood-suckers, traders in vice and damnation, and other verminous excrescences of that type. . . . We are not bothered about the letter of the Law, we act exactly as we please, we inflict what punishments we think suitable, and no one is going to escape us.”

Theologians might question some of Templar’s morality, but in the story “The Blind Spot,” in the collection The Brighter Buccaneer (1933), Charteris noted that everyone has a weakness, an Achilles heel.  “The professor of theology,” he mused, “knows the Saint Saga as well as the Epistle to the Ephesians.”  True it is that, at least in English-speaking lands, theologians and the clergy seem to have a soft spot for detective fiction.  For instance, the Anglican priests and seminarians in P. D. James’ crime novel Death in Holy Orders (2001) are described as being addicted to crime fiction.

As addictions go, it barely rates.  Some years ago, Father Benedict Groeschel told an audience at Cambridge, “It’s only an addiction if it’s life-threatening.”  Probably few cars have been wrecked and fewer marriages ruined by someone hooked on whodunits.  In any case, Simon Templar’s adventures won’t cause cancer or ravage the liver.

More so than in other crime fiction, the exploits of Charteris’ hero (or anti-hero) ripple with humor.  Not surprisingly, an early admirer was P. G. Wodehouse.  Templar could well have been Bertie Wooster’s more energetic (and more clever) kid brother.  At a crucial point in The Saint Plays with Fire (1938), Templar is in Paddington station racing against the clock, and Charteris gives one of the funniest and most accurate descriptions of a man in a hurry trying to get information from a railway official, the sort of oblivious drudge plodding through his daily routine and who couldn’t give a succinct answer to save his life.

The Saint’s sense of fun and fair play can get him into unexpected trouble.  In The Saint’s Getaway (1932), Templar is on holiday in Austria, and he and his friend Monty Hayward see a man on a bridge being set upon by some tough-looking characters.  Without further ado, Templar and Hayward rescue the man by chucking the toughs into the river.

Only later do the rescuers realize that by their impulsive chivalry they had got hold of the wrong end of the stick:  the rescued man was one of the ungodly; the toughs were plainclothes policemen trying to arrest him.  The result is one long chase scene, and the suspense is not whether Templar will get out of that mess, but how he will manage it.

Charteris dropped out of Cambridge in order to write, and hitting upon the winning formula of the Saint was on par with Arthur Conan Doyle dreaming up Sherlock Holmes or, later, Ian Fleming making up James Bond.  It makes sense, then, that Holmes and Bond are the only comparable franchises to the Saint.  It may be for that reason Roger Moore was cast to play Bond after portraying Templar.  Regarding Templar’s perennial appeal, Moore said in 2013, “The world needs a Saint.”

While Charteris’ sense of justice drives each of his stories, his political antennae sometimes quiver in mistaken directions.  In the 1930s Templar (and thus Charteris) believed that talk of re-armament merely masked the greed of warmongers and profiteers, but looking back, we must recall that such conventional wisdom, held by the most respectable people, found contradiction by the lone voice in the wilderness that was Winston Churchill.

Nevertheless, one turns to the stories of the Saint for the same reason one turns to the tales of Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, not to mention Father Brown or Brother Cadfael.  Life is short, and one ought to read something interesting.  A slog through the bleak pages of the ponderous Karamazov clan, for example, constitutes a rarefied form of fun.

Instead, if one needs a change of pace from the everyday treadmill, escape can come from the Saint’s escapades.  Some of them may seem dated, but as Charteris said of Saint Overboard (1936), “I think it still stands up as a rattling good adventure, and that should be enough for anybody’s money.”

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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