RogerBW's Blog

The Last Hero, Leslie Charteris 03 February 2021

1930 thriller. The Saint and Pat Holm stumble across a weapon so terrible it cannot be allowed to exist, even in the hands of the British government. Vt The Saint Closes the Case.

This is a novel of parts, and I suspect that some of that is because it began as two separate short stories: The Creeping Death makes up its beginning and end, while Sudden Death was inserted and modified to be the central section. If things seem to be floundering for a while, that's probably why.

The moment-to-moment thud and blunder is excellent, with the sort of attention to small tactical details which makes me realise how much this kind of thing has been an influence on my role-playing style: it matters which way the car skidded and crashed, and therefore whether the man with the gun can get out quickly or has to fight his way free, because everyone here is a competent professional and of such small advantages are victories made. The interludes of philosophising are less convincing; all right, perhaps this weapon is the one so horrible that it makes fighting in a war no fun even for heroic chaps and so cannot be allowed to exist, but I cannot help but feel that the heroic chaps of the Great War would have said the same thing about poison gas and aeroplanes, the heroic chaps of the American Civil War the same thing about the Gatling gun, and so on back to a caveman arguing that a pointy rock was cheating. (Of course, we have the lone inventor, perhaps less of a cliché then than now, so if he can be suppressed the thing will never be discovered by anyone else. Contrast the very extensive correspondence among real scientists in the 1930s as they realised that yes, the energy contained in radioactive materials could indeed be let out suddenly, and it was only a question of how.)

At the same time, there is a distressing lack of basic tradecraft. When you are leaving one person with a gun alone to guard three enemies for several hours in the dead of night, you don't leave the enemies untied! You may need to speak the number you want to the telephone operator, but that just means you don't make a phone call where the bad guys can hear you, which you shouldn't be doing anyway. On the one hand, if these mistakes weren't being made, then small victories would quickly cascade into bigger ones and the book would be over too soon and without last-moment tension; on the other, the mistakes make the good guys look frustratingly stupid. Combine that with very extensive foreshadowing that one of the Saint's men is going to die – no spoiler, it's right there in the introduction – and at times the narrative seems distinctly heavy-handed.

And of course while Patricia Holm is here and still shows reasonable pluck, she's not really an active participant in events the way she was in Meet the Tiger. Of course it's a truism of this kind of fiction that Girls don't get to play, and if it weren't for the fact that in that first book Charteris had shown that he could do better one wouldn't even be surprised; but it's still a disappointment.

Still, there's a spirit here which manages to shine through the cliché and occasional turgidity. When Charteris remembers that he's writing to entertain, he can entertain superbly.

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Previous in series: Enter the Saint | Series: The Saint | Next in series: Knight Templar

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