Revisiting the favourite literature of our childhood and youth can often bring disappointment. There may be several reasons why this is so. For one thing, reading tastes change as we grow older. The world changes too; ideas about what is acceptable, amusing, moral, and so on, do not remain fixed. That is not to say books should be banned (as the Catholic Church has chosen to do over time), or burned (as depicted in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451). I do not believe in that kind of censorship.
However, I have occasionally picked up a novel written, say, fifty years or a century ago, and cringed at the blatant racism and the casual disregard for animal life. Such is the case with the otherwise excellent novels by Dennis Wheatley or Henry Rider Haggard.
Thus it was with a certain wariness that I began reading an early thriller by the British-Eurasian novelist, Leslie Charteris.
‘Somewhere inside him, an awe-inspiringly lucid deduction was struggling for delivery. “Boss,” said Mr Uniatz, with growing conviction, “dat looks like a fight.” “It is a fight,” said the Saint contentedly.’
The Saint Bids Diamonds predates World War II. Saint stories were great favourites of my mid teens; I suppose I must have read twenty or more before I left school. This story is set in Tenerife, a very different place from the one I came to know slightly in the 1980s.
When he comes across an elderly man and his daughter being harrassed by three thugs, Simon Templar intervenes and dishes out some grievous bodily harm to the villains. The old man, Joris Vanlinden, is a diamond cutter employed by nasty gangster Reuben Graner to “deal with” some stolen stones. The daughter, Christine, is – as is usual in such novels – young and beautiful, which gives the Saint added incentive to involve himself in the business – not to mention a missing lottery ticket worth two million dollars.
‘A well-aimed fist in Mr Palermo’s eye, [Simon] was musing, could produce an agreeable symmetrical effect. Or should one be guided by a less monotonous style of composition and work diagonally downwards through the nose?’
Having installed himself in Graner’s organisation as Joris’s replacement, the Saint sets about disrupting both the diamond operation and the hunt for the winning lottery ticket. With the help of his iron nerve, quick thinking and a not too bright sidekick called Hoppy Uniatz, the Saint sets the double-crossing baddies at each other’s throats, both literally and figuratively. This objective cannot be achieved without some nail-biting danger to Templar himself. But, of course, all ends well. The criminal gang is smashed and the Saint helps himself to some well-earned booty.
So, what did I think, renewing my acquaintance with Simon Templar after all these years? Oh, undoubtedly, the innocent victims and the bad guys are stereotypes, but the Saint is something else! Strong, intelligent, witty and carefree, he saunters through the pages of the book like a twentieth century Robin Hood, fighting villainy wherever he finds it. The law is an ass, and deserves to be whipped.
Unlike James Bond – whom he resembles only very superficially, the Saint doesn’t always have his way with the girl at the end. He is too much of a romantic, and has too soft a heart for that. Whatever else he might be, he is a gentleman.
Leslie Charteris’s writing is fast-paced, full of thrills and spills, of gun fights, knife fights, fist fights and impossible characters and escapes. Above all, it is witty. I don’t regret my nostalgia one little bit.
To quote Charteris himself in later life: ‘Even now, half a century later, when I should be old enough to know better, I still cling to [the belief that] there will always be a public for the old-style hero, who had a clear idea of justice, and a more than technical approach to love, and the ability to have some fun with his crusades.’
Yes, I must re-read some more!