At the Bodleian the other day I ordered the 1929 copies of the Thriller magazine, hoping to find out whether the anti-war sentiments in Leslie Charteris’s The Last Hero were there in the original magazine versions of the story, or whether they were a later (1930) addition. Charteris makes Simon Templar claim that “We are on the crest of a wave of literature about the horrors of war,” and use the phrase “those books and plays.”
Which books and what plays is he referring to? All Quiet on the Western Front had been the book that got all the publicity when it was published in the spring of 1928. Other (British) books had followed, and some previously published now got more attention – Herbert’s The Secret Battle was reprinted, for example. In the theatre, Journey’s End first had a small-scale club production in London at the end of 1928, made a big impression and transferred to the Savoy in January 1929, where it became a huge hit. But had other war plays made an impact by 1929? MacGill’s Suspense was not produced until 1930. So when Charteris makes his hero talk of “plays” in the plural, is this rhetoric, or is he actually thinking of a number of plays?
Clearly he expects his popular audience to understand the reference to “those books and plays”, and I’d like to know whether the phrase originates in 1929 or 1930. Unfortunately, when I got the Thriller volume from the Bodleian it was rather thin. They only have the first sixteen weekly issues of The Thriller, and this does not include The Creeping Terror, the story that formed the basis for The Last Hero. The British Library seems to have a complete run, though – so maybe I can take a look when I’m there next.
Update: I later checked in the British Library: that papragraph about the war books is not there in the 1929 serialisation. So it’s a 1930 paragraph…
The volume in the Bodleian did, however, make interesting reading. It includes the issue of 4/5/29, which contains The Five Kings, which I think was the first Thriller story to feature Simon Templar – or a version of him. In this story he is one of a group of vigilantes who deal forcefully with the scum of the underworld. Their pseudonyms are King of Spades, King of Hearts, King of Clubs, KIng of Diamonds, and the Joker – which is Simon Templar, already calling himself the Saint because of his initials. The name Joker fits him, because he already speaks in the unremittingly facetious style that would become his trademark.
The story was later adapted as The Man Who was Clever, the first story in Enter the Saint (1930). The main plot details are much the same, with the forces of good dealing with the vile ‘Snake’ Ganning and Edgar Hayn, but Charteris has not quite settled the Saint’s personality and style yet. When he leaves his marker, for example, it is not a haloed stick-man, but five playing cards – Kings and Joker.
One person who definitely didn’t understand the sort of character the Saint would become was the magazine’s artist.
This illustration is supposed to show Templar freeing himself from the ropes that tie him. The artist has given him the ugliness that ‘Sapper’ always insists on for Bulldog Drummond, rather than the elegant sophistication that is the trademark of Charteris’s hero.
Update: there is more about the Saint (and how he belongs to a tradition of colourful lawbreakers) in my longer paper, Gentleman Crooks.