Leslie Charteris, the writer, appears almost as enigmatic a character as his creation, 'The Saint'. You sense that he never entirely fitted in, never entirely settled, that here was a man with an active, enquiring mind who very early understood that losing himself in writing and fantasy would always be more satisfying than trying to find a niche in conventional society.
His father was a surgeon and wealthy civic leader in Singapore, so you sense the young Leslie Charles Bowyer Lin was born into a privileged family - he would be privately educated and tutored until the age of twelve, when he was sent to a minor public school in England. However, with a Chinese father and English mother, you suspect that privilege extended only so far - that he must have faced considerable racist exclusion (for a time he was denied US citizenship because of his Chinese heritage).
Charteris (he took his mother's maiden name as a writer) dropped out of Cambridge University to pursue a writing career. He appears to have been something of an adventurer, trying to earn an income at anything from gold prospecting to gambling, travelling the world, becoming an accomplished linguist. The success of 'The Saint', as a character to be mined by cinema (and later television), established his reputation and his fortune.
The Saint has been described as a latter-day Robin Hood, a gentleman equally at home in the (imagined) criminal underworld and the rarefied airs of high society, a man intent on justice ... and the justifiable redistribution of wealth ... a man who could work with the police while apparently still being sought by them, anonymous, yet universally known. The Saint, you feel, is a character who never quite fits in, a free spirit, a citizen of the world, but a man who would have difficulty finding a home.
'The Last Hero' (later renamed 'The Saint Closes the Case'), was the second published Saint novel, although it was actually the third to be written ('Enter the Saint' should be read as the second novel, following 'Meet - the Tiger', the book which introduced Simon Templar as 'The Saint'). 'The Last Hero' was, in fact, written as a magazine serial, published in 1929, which explains the episodic style of its writing.
'The Last Hero' / 'The Saint Closes the Case' appears somewhat rambling in places. Charteris clearly appreciated that he had a hit on his hands, that his gentleman sleuth had caught the public imagination - hence the need to produce a magazine serial to follow up 'Meet - the Tiger'. There's a deal of exposition at the start of the book as the author tries to explain that his hero has been up to a few other things before this story starts. It does slow the plot a little.
However, once we get into the main story, it becomes a bit formulaic, a bit "Boy's Own Story" - with evil foreign diplomats and magnates, mad professors with their horrifying death rays, the girl to be endangered, rescued, but never bedded, the loyal friends and retainers, the slightly inept copper, the tacit approval of a grateful Empire.
By modern standards, the characterisation is clumsy - a bit cardboard cut-out. The plot is far-fetched - The Saint seems to have the resources of the modern CIA, without any of their disadvantages. It almost has a Victorian feel - troubled Balkan provinces, exotic Crown Princes, Europe in the melting pot as the noble and the financial empires struggle for mastery.
Yet this is a Europe (1929/30) still struggling to escape the Great War, witnessing the emergence of Fascism in Italy and Germany, trying to unpick the impact of Stalin on the USSR, and conscious that another global war might still be on the horizon - with who knows what terror weapons available to the generals this time.
This is a book with no political or social realism. It is escapism - admittedly bleak, admittedly embodying the perspective that Europe faces an uncertain future. It's an adventure story - naïve, ingenuous, and clearly contrived as a page turner.
In writing style, it is slow and laboured for modern tastes. It's quite tedious in places, and quite tame throughout. It's not a novel which you would read for escapist entertainment today. This is part of the history of crime writing - a book to be read if you're fascinated by the genre and its history. It's a piece of literary archaeology.
Charteris, himself, remains a fascinating character - 'The Saint' would become an extremely successful cinema and television creature, far removed from the original books. But you sense Charteris was born before his time - that here was a very bright, curious, creative, and entertaining individual who never quite settled, whose skills and talents might have been much better appreciated had he been born in 1957, not 1907. Charteris is an author worthy of appreciation - but this is not great literature.