The Convenient Monster, about an intriguing-sounding episode of the 1960s TV series, The Saint, based around the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. I discovered later that “The Convenient Monster” started life as a short story by the Saint’s creator, Leslie Charteris, so I started to look round for a printed version of it. I eventually managed to get hold of the book pictured here – The Fantastic Saint, containing “The Convenient Monster” along with five other Saint stories having a horror and/or science fiction element to them.
Leslie Charteris wrote his first Saint story in 1928, when he was just 21 – while the Saint, alias Simon Templar, was portrayed as being not much older. His last Saint stories were written early in the 1960s, by which time the TV series starring Roger Moore was already underway, and Charteris (and presumably the Saint too) was the wrong side of 50. Charteris had retired from writing by the time The Fantastic Saint was published in 1982, although he did produce an afterword for it.
The six stories in the collection span virtually the entire career of the Saint, from the early 1930s to the early sixties. In his afterword, Charteris says he wanted “to avoid the perpetual repetition of a recognizable formula”. That’s just the sort of thing you’d expect the creator of a long-running series character to say... but in Charteris’s case it’s absolutely true. The six stories are all completely different from each other – and at least a few of them are really outstanding.
The earliest story in the book, “The Gold Standard” from 1932, is also the longest of them – and probably the weakest, too. It’s essentially a Mad Scientist story, about a modern-day alchemist – but it can’t really be called science fiction, because Charteris makes no attempt at a technical (or even pseudo-technical) explanation for the gold-making process. That’s only a minor quibble, but it’s worth mentioning because the other five stories are all particularly strong on technical background. In this story, however, the “technical details” border on tongue-in-cheek metafiction – the scientist’s lair is likened to “one of those nightmare laboratories of the future which appear in every magazine of pseudo-scientific fiction”!
I’m glad I read the stories in chronological order, because “The Gold Standard” is the only one that goes into much detail about the background of the characters. At this point in his career the Saint was a kind of English version of the pulp hero the Spider, who made his debut the following year – an independently wealthy, upper-class playboy who fights against evil while being viewed as a dangerously anti-social psychopath by the blunderingly ineffective police force. As the stories progress, the Saint slowly inches his way toward acceptance by the establishment.
The villain of the second story – “The Newdick Helicopter”, from 1933 – is not so much a Mad Scientist as an inventor-turned-conman. It’s a highly amusing tale, but I was puzzled at first as to just what the “fantastic” element was supposed to be. Then I realized that the first true helicopter, capable of vertical take-off and landing, didn’t come on the market until several years after the story was written!
The third piece, called “The Man Who Liked Ants” and dating from 1937, is about as archetypal a Mad Scientist story as they come. As far as the plot goes, it would have been right at home in a B-movie theatre or pulp science fiction magazine of the time. However it’s lifted up somewhat by the fact that, as Charteris says in his afterword: “Before writing ‘The Man Who Liked Ants’, I read three or four serious books about them. Which doesn’t make me an entomologist, but at least gives the story some scientific support.”
Keeping to chronological order (which is not quite the order the stories are printed in the book), the next one is “The Darker Drink” from 1949. Just as “The Man Who Liked Ants” was typical of the naively simplistic science fiction of the 1930s, this one is closer to the sophisticated mind-benders the masters of the genre was turning out just a decade later. “The Darker Drink” reminded me particularly of Fredric Brown, whose novel What Mad Universe?, also from 1949, has a similar tone – as do several of his short stories. But hardly anyone has heard of Frederic Brown today – so a less obscure (if slightly less accurate) comparison would be with the early work of Philip K. Dick a few years later.
I can’t think how to describe “The Darker Drink” without spoiling it, so I’ll just quote the introduction by Martin H. Greenberg: “Simon Templar’s hideout in the High Sierras is invaded by a man called Big Bill Holbrook who claims to be the dream-world creation of a sleeping bank clerk in Glendale, California. It is perhaps the Saint’s strangest adventure, beginning as a screwball send-up of The Maltese Falcon and ending as a nightmare.”
Personally I’d rate “The Darker Drink” as the second best story in the book, after the one that comes next in chronological order: “The Questing Tycoon” from 1954. This is a zombie story – but it’s not THAT kind of zombie story. It’s as thoughtful and well-researched a zombie story as I’ve ever come across, with a discussion of Voodoo in terms of comparative religion which must have seemed quite radical in the 1950s. Again quoting from Leslie Charteris’s afterword: “‘The Questing Tycoon’ was inspired by a visit to Haiti, where I was fortunate enough to be able to witness a couple of genuine voodoo ceremonies – not the kind that are laid on for the tourists. I was also lucky enough to meet a local resident, a lifelong student of the cult and the author of important monographs on the subject: thanks to him, I can vouch that the details and the actual incantation and the song quoted are literally exact.”
This brings us to “The Convenient Monster”, the last of the stories to be published – in 1962, only four years before the TV adaptation described in Nick Redfern’s article. I hardly need to say anything about this one, because Nick’s (spoiler-free) account of the small-screen adaptation is pretty close to the printed version. The order of events at the start of the story is slightly different, and a few scenes and at least one character seem to have been added to the TV version, but otherwise it sounds like a pretty faithful adaptation. I’ll have to look out for it in the schedules now!
Although I’ve known the name Leslie Charteris since childhood – my grandfather had a couple of Saint paperbacks on his bookshelf in the sixties – The Fantastic Saint is the first book I’ve ever read by him. I’ll certainly be looking out for more now – and I’ll have to catch some Saint reruns on TV, too. I used to watch it regularly as a child, and I really liked the Simon Templar character as portrayed by Roger Moore. Probably for that reason, I’m the only person I know (and possibly the only person in the world) who thinks that Roger Moore was far and away the best actor ever to play James Bond!