Thursday, March 5, 2009

An Unusual Bit of Piracy

The Saint Overboard, by Leslie Charteris (1936)

Because of my fondness for old-fashioned mysteries and pulp adventures, I end up reading about an awful lot of occasions in which beautiful women in need of rescuing from horrible danger turn up on the doorsteps of heroes.

This has pretty much led me to expect this to one day happen to me. It never does, though, forcing me to exist in perpetual disappointment.


But at least I can read about beautiful women in need of rescuing. Simon Templar, aka the Saint, pretty much stumbles over them by the gross.

In The Saint Overboard, the plot jump starts in the first few paragraphs when a beautiful woman shows up at Simon’s doorstep. Well, actually, she swims up to his yacht, but the idea is the same.

The girl is Loretta Page, a private eye working to catch a particularly dangerous bad guy who has already done away with at least three other detectives. To the surprise of no one, Simon soon becomes involved.

It all turns out to revolve around a plot to illegally salvage gold off of recently sunken ships before the insurance companies can launch a legal salvage operation. The potential haul reaches into the tens of millions of dollars and the villains are more than willing to kill to protect their take.

The novel contains just a few scenes of straightforward action—instead, Charteris depends on building up suspense based on Simon and Loretta each taking on a sort-of undercover role without really being sure if the leader of the gang is on to either of them.
The leader, named Kurt Vogel, plays multi-layered mind games with them both in an attempt to trick them into giving themselves away.

It’s all done very well, with the tension inherent in the story growing quite thick by the end. Vogel is smart enough (and scary enough) make a good villain, while Loretta is smart and brave enough to be more than just a damsel in distress. Charteris’ prose is witty and fast-moving, but he can generate some pretty strong emotional reactions from his readers when he wants to. This time, the emotion comes not just from the danger to Simon and Loretta, but from their respective willingness to make some pretty serious sacrifices for each other when the chips are down.

On a geekier note—there are several scenes in the story that take place underwater, with Simon and several other characters clad in those bulky pre-aqualung diving suits. And those old-school suits are just plain cool.

Simon Templar has always been a fun character. A thief who steals most often from other thieves, he always ends up showing a sense of honor and justice that makes him the hero almost in spite of himself.

That’s it for this month’s book. Next month, I think we’ll jump back in time a few centuries and take a look at St. Peter’s Fair, by Ellis Peters.

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