Unlike one of the other reviewers here, I don't find the title "The Saint Plays With Fire" duff, but that may be for personal reasons. I first saw the title on a newsagent's book-stand. It was the first Saint title I remembered. My acquaintance with the Saint until then had only been on television, and it had only just registered that there were books about the character. Not knowing what "playing with fire" meant, it struck me as appropriate for the exuberant adventuring that the character always shows. But though it struck the chord, it's taken me a long time to read this one, despite my having read many others in the meantime.
Has it been worth the wait? Very definitely. The novel runs at a furious pace. It took me only four sittings to complete it. Leslie Charteris' writing style is running full throttle. His flights of fancy, usually aimed at deflating pomposity, are right on the mark with the caustic wit, unlike in some early novels, where occasionally the language can get strained. What's more the book is very evocative of the late nineteen thirties when it was written.
The first chapter has Simon Templar and Patricia Holm driving home, listening on the radio to a Fascist rally. It's impossible not to feel a chill reading this, not least because the book was published in 1938 under the auspicious title "Prelude for War." But soon the Saint is in action trying to save someone in a fire. This is followed by a wonderfully drawn inquest which has a result that leaves unanswered questions to leave. Then Simon is off investigating what is going on, dealing with the ungodly in his unique way until the book reaches a climax where he faces death and defeat.
As many have noted, most of the best of Charteris' writing was in the nineteen thirties. There are many reasons for this, and one is the presence of other characters who were later written out of the Saint's saga. Patricia Holm, the Saint's regular girlfriend is here, humouring him. There is Peter Quentin sometimes questioning him sarcastically. Hoppy Uniatz, a drunken gangster type provides his comic interludes. There is also Chief Inspector Teal being frustrated again in his attempts to arrest the Saint, but even more by his superiors. They all added colour and life to the adventures. The villains are also up to scratch. An arms manufacturer, Kane Luker, recalls Rayt Marius, one of Simon's most formidable enemies in earlier novels (see The Saint Closes the Case (Saint 02) and The Avenging Saint (Saint 04) which are also essential novels for Saint aficionados). Then there is the good time girl in distress, Lady Valerie Woodchester. Plus, of course, Simon Templar himself with the ability to despatch the ungodly, mocking and humorous even at the grimmest times.
As the introduction to the book by Paul Simpson says, in some ways this is the last Saint novel. After this, the author wrote many more short stories and novellas (or novelettes as he liked to call them) with the character, but few of reached the level of quality on display here. "The Saint Plays With Fire" is one of the very best, if not the best of them. A fitting climax to Leslie Charteris' peak writing period. He and the Saint do not get better than this.
Helping the victims of a devastating country house fire, Simon finds there is one he is unable to rescue. Soon he becomes convinced that the fire was not an accident, but murder. The mystery is: why?
"Prelude for War" (later plonkingly re-titled "The Saint Plays with Fire"), one of the best Saint novels, is very much of its time — i.e. just before World war II — and has echoes of The Last Hero and Knight Templar. It makes particularly clear the author's loathing of Fascism and everything associated with it.
The idea that wars are encouraged, or even engineered, by arms-manufacturers and others who stand to make a profit from them has gone in and out of fashion over the years. The Saint is a proponent of it, and even mentions (in a conversation with Patricia Holm) a book wherein this thesis is documented. I was interested to find that the book really exists, and finally ran it down*. It seems very well researched, and well-written, too: I wish there were an up-to-date version!
Anyway, I found this Saint episode unputdownable from start to finish. In addition to the usual friends like Orace, Peter and Hoppy, we have the pleasure of meeting what must surely be Charteris's loveliest non-recurring character: Lady Valerie Woodchester. To make her acquaintance would alone be enough reason to read the book!
*Merchants of Death by H.C. Engelbrecht & F.C. Hanighen, published in 1934 by Dodd, Mead & Co. (New York).
P.S. For a list of all Charteris's Saint books (in two sections, because of length limitations) see my Listmanias.