"The Man From St. Louis"
(June 12, 2003)
From a November 1932 issue of THE THRILLER (where it appeared as "The Saint -- Hi-jacker", this is an exciting action piece with an interesting twist. Instead of a Chinese secret society bringing their sinister activties to England or an ancient Egyptian sorceror invading the Isles with black magic, the foreign threat this time is a single American gangster.
Hmmm, well, it makes sense, especially in the 1930s. From all I can gather, England has always had its fair share of crime and criminals but the wild Tommygun-firing hoodlums made famous in the US during the Roaring Twenties never had their counterparts in the UK. Even today, from all reports, crime in the UK involves much less gunplay than in the US.
So we find an unwelcome visitor from the American city of St. Louis, Tex Goldman. ("Tex" from Missouri?! I suppose it's better than having the logial nickname "Miss"....) I don't know why Leslie Charteris has his villain hailing from St. Louis instead of the more dramatic Chicago or Brooklyn, but possibly he was basing it on a newspaper clipping, as many of his stories from their springboards in a news item. Goldman is on the run from a vengeful Chinese tong (in Missouri?) and he sees England as a peaceful, vulnerable meadow ready to be plundered. He recruits minor London goons to be his new gang and they promptly get going on a rampage of robberies and looting; their advantage is that they carry guns and are quick to use them.
There's nothing comical in Goldman himself. He's a genuine thug ("All my life I been a hood....I came out of the gutter - but I came out.") He's mean, crude and accepts killing bystanders as part of the business. Bad as he is, though, he does have the rudimentary code of honor sometimes found in crooks, never crossing a pal. When Simon tests him by threatening to kill both him and a girl he's picked up, Goldman doesn't beg or whimper. ("Give me what's coming to me. But let the kid get the hell out of here first. I can take it for both of us.") This basic show of chivalry is enough for the Saint to decide to spare Goldman's life.
The humour in an otherwise brutal story comes from the English crooks becoming fascinated with this American gangster and trying to imitate his ways. One of them spends three hours at the movies and picks up a lot of tough guy slang, and they almost visibly change into copies of their leader. ("He was one of the first examples of a type of crook that was still new and strange to England... educated in movie theatres and the raw underworld fiction imported by F.W. Woolworth.")
But, fortunately for the peaceable London citizens, there is a cheerful freebooter living in their town who is displeased with Tex Goldman's visit. ("This country can get along without your kind of crime. Maybe America can show us lot of things, but you've come over with one kind of thing we don't want to be shown.") With Patricia Holm alongside him (always a delight, she takes a bomb through their window with the same panache as she would a moonlit dinner) and Claud Eustace Teal working in reluctant partnership, the Saint goes after these neo-Capones with a vengeance.
Simon is at his tricky, ingenious best here. His entrance into the story has a wonderful flair, as the crooks suddenly realize there's something awful funny about their driver. He's not above a quick uppercut to send a thug to the dreaming country, but mostly he uses strategy. At one point, he (and Charteris) have the nerve to brazenly appropriate Holmes' trick from "The Empty House" with equal success. (The bomb which somehow has been planted in the gangster's getaway car is something Sherlock never tried, though.) It's the true Charteris touch that Simon intimidates a prisoner with torture instruments which include what looks like a thumbscrew but is actually a can-opener.
We also get a few insights into Simon's past and character. Standing on a bridge while trailing a suspect, he has a surge of "nostalgia of other and perhaps better days when he had been free to go down to limpid tropical seas under the swelling white sails of a schooner..." and he's sick of dirty city streets and his current crusade. I would love to see someone somewhere do a series of "Untold Tales of the Saint" set in that tatalizing decade before he met Pat, when he roamed over the danger spots of the world in the 1920s.
And after a brisk morning of hi-jacking some crates of machine guns being smuggled into England (the brutes!), Simon blithely orders a cardiac-arrest breakfast. "I'll have two fried eggs, lots of bacon and about a quart of coffee... After that, I might be able to toy with three more eggs, a pound of mushrooms and a lot more bacon". Considering that he also drinks about as much as a college student on spring break and considers every spare moment a good opportunity for a cigarette, it's a wonder Simon isn't a dead ringer for Teal.