Thursday 28 September 2000

Leslie Charteris: Prelude for War (1938)

Alternative title: The Saint Plays With Fire
Edition: Severn House, 1979
Review number: 633

To Leslie Charteris, it was clear well before 1938 that the posturing and aggression of the various continental dictators would lead to a new European war. The rise of the right in Germany had been attacked in the Saint stories before Prelude for War, and there had been an outspoken attack on Franco's methods during the Spanish Civil War.

Prelude for War, then, begins with a blistering attack on the Fascists of France (and, by implication, Britain) and the stupidity of those who believed in what they said. It is an attack from the point of view of an individualist (as both Charteris and his creation were) at those who are willing to give up the right to their own point of view at the urging of a demagogue. It is such a serious and strong attack that it rather overbalances this otherwise light-hearted thriller.

Thieves' Picnic and Prelude for War are the last two Saint novels to be retitled, and the only two where the new title has as much connection to the content as the original. The Saint Plays With Fire is rather a good title, for it refers not just to Simon Templar taking on the forces which brought about the Second World War, but to the way that the story begins, with the Saint attempting to rescue a man from a burning manor house, only to be unable to reach him in time because his bedroom door has been locked and the key taken away. When he discovers who the (now dead) young man was - a prominent Socialist agitator - and that the rest of the house party are staid right wing pillars of society, Simon begins to feel that something serious is going on. The involvement of the Sons of France soon becomes clear, but not why they are connected with the murder.

The attack on Fascism is a slight miscalculation from a structural viewpoint, but Prelude for War is one of the most interesting Saint novels.

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