A while back I speculated on whether Simon Templar – “The Saint” had fought in the war, and came to the conclusion, based on the first “Saint” novel, Meet – the Tiger, that he might have done, or at least that Charteris surrounded him with military imagery.
The third “Saint” book to be published (if you don’t count issues of the Thriller magazine, which I have not looked at) was Enter a Hero (Magazine publication 1929. Book publication, 1930.), which suggests differently.
In this book, Templar comes across British government scientists testing a lethal electrified-gas-cloud super-weapon. Concerned that such a lethal device might get into the wrong hands, Templar gives a caustic account of how wars start. His sidekick Roger Conway protests “But people would never stand for another war so soon. Every country is disarming – ”
The Saint interrupts with:
Bluffing with everything they know, and hoping that one day someone’ll be taken in. And every nation scared stiff of the rest, and ready to arm again at any notice. The people never make or want a war – it’s sprung on them by the statesmen with the business interests behind them, and somebody writes a “We-Don’t-Want-to-Lose-you-but-We-Think-You-Ought-to-Go” song for the brass bands to play , and millions of poor fools go out and die like heroes without ever being quite sure what it’s all about. It’s happened before. Why shouldn’t it happen again?
This is the futility-of -war thesis put at its strongest – definitely not the sort of thing you’d find in a thriller before 1928. But after this outburst, another sidekick objects that people may have learnt their lesson. With “an impatient gesture”, Templar replies:
Do people learn lessons like that so easily? The men who could teach them are a past generation now. How many are left who are young enough to convince our generation? And even if we are on the crest of a wave of literature about the horrors of war, do you think that cuts any ice? I tell you, I’ve listened till I’m tired to people of our own age discussing those books and plays – and I know they cut no ice at all. It’d be a miracle if they did. The mind of a healthy young man is too optimistic. It leaps to the faintest hint of glory, and finds it easy to forget whole seas of ghastliness. And I’ll tell you more…
What he tells them takes them all into another far-fetched swashbuckling plot, of course, but Charteris has made his point about wars and romanticism.
Charteris himself was born in 1907 – so was settling into his lifelong “Saint” series at the age of just twenty-two. In Meet – the Tiger he had put Templar’s age at twenty-nine, just old enough to have fought, and many of his hero’s attributes are copied from the most famous of ex-soldier thriller heroes, Bulldog Drummond; even Templar’s excessive facetiousness in the face of danger is a crib of a villain-annoying tactic of Drummond’s. In this third book, Charteris is distancing his hero from the ex-soldiers of “Sapper”, andTemplar is re-positioned as one of the younger generation – but as one who sympathises with the members of the older generation who are trying to tell the young the grim truths about war. Perhaps this speech shows Charteris’s own conflict. He was a writer of romances (and unlike “Sapper” never tried to write anything else, so far as I can tell) but in 1930 has become aware that he lives in an age where romances can be dangerous. Maybe, like many young men of his time, he’s read All Quiet and seen Journey’s End, and wants to at least pay homage to their power, and in his own way to spread the word.