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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Leslie Charteris - Before the Saint

Regular readers will know that we occasionally run a feature called "mysteries that have me mystified"—little featurettes about authors that remain stubbornly mysterious. We've managed to track down information on quite a few little known authors here at Bear Alley, but our subject today is one of the most popular authors in the world. Yet there's still a big mystery surrounding his writing career.

Leslie Charteris was the author of The Saint and one would expect that his CV was thoroughly researched and widely known. Not so. I was surprised to discover whilst reading The Saint and Leslie Charteris by W. O. G. Lofts & Derek Adley, that Charteris's earliest stories had yet to be discovered. The Lofts & Adley book I read many years ago, but it would seem that

Charteris was born May 12, 1907, at Straits Settlements, Singapore, the son of Dr Suat-Chuan Yin, a wealthy Chinese surgeon, businessman and civic leader who claimed he was a direct descendent of the emperors of China in the Shang dynasty, and an English mother, Lydia Florence Yin (née Bowyer). He was christened Leslie Charles Yin, but later changed this name legally by deed-poll to Leslie Charles Charteris in 1926; when he became a naturalised American citizen in 1946 he officially became Leslie Charteris. He chose Charteris after Colonel Francis Charteris, a founder-member of the Hellfire Club.

By the time he was twelve he had travelled around the world three times with his parents, and had learned Chinese and Malay from servants before he could speak English. The Yin family lived in England for some time where Leslie and his younger brother Roy were taught by a tutor, Emily Fleming who returned with them to Singapore in 1914.

Around that time, aged 7, he began writing and at 10 years old was given his first typewriter and was “writing and editing a one-man magazine to which my relatives had to subscribe under discrete blackmail.” He sold his first poem to The Straits Times, where it appeared when Yin was only nine years old. Another poem, "The Battle of the Figures", appeared in the February 1919 issue of Boy's Own Paper under the byline Leslie C. Bowyer-Yin when he was only 11.

Mrs. Yin split from her husband and came to England with her two sons in 1919 where Leslie attended Falconbury School near Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, and Rossall School in Fleetwood on the Lancashire coast.

As a child, Charteris's favourite reading was Chums. To quote Lofts & Adley:
His biggest treat at Christmas was the red-bound annual volume of Chums, which contained the whole of the year's issue of the magazine. The greatest joy was that he could read the serials stright through and did not have to wait in suspense for next week's thrilling instalment.
Lofts & Adley also revealed:
His first successful magazine sale, at the age of sixteen, was a story set in the Pacific, concerning a pearl, which is now unfortunately not traceable. This was written while he was still at school and the resulting cheque from a publisher, for a few guineas, convinced him more than ever that writing was easy...
    Another story, probably his second effort, was published in Hutchinson's Sovereign Magazine in January 1925 featuring a detective, and was entitled "One Crowded Hour". It was written under the nom de plume of 'Leslie C. Bowyer'—the latter being his mother's maiden name.
Bill Lofts & Derek Adley compiled an extensive bibliography of Charteris's work for their book, which they introduced by reiterating that:
Leslie Charteris wrote his first story in 1924 whilst still attending school at Rossall. This story, despite exhaustive research, has never been traced, but it probably appeared in one of the Hutchinson group of magazines, the majority of which are unfortunately missing from the files of the British Museum. This story concerned a pearl and was set in the Pacific.
Here Bill, Derek and I part company, because I think Charteris sold his first story to his favourite story paper, Chums. This is, of course, pure speculation, but my money is that Charteris's first sale appeared under the title "Pearls of Price" under the nom de plume Saville Hall in Chums 1720 (30 August 1925). There's no direct evidence, but I do have the following circumstantial evidence: it is from the right period and it concerns pearls and is set in the Pacific. Also, it is in the author's favourite boyhood paper. Although the evidence is slim, it is still a pretty good fit.



  1. Fascinating stuff. I must re-read the Saint books one day - really enjoyed them back in the early and mid-'70s. The author didn't seem too thrilled with the TV show from what I've read, but I enjoyed that, too.

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  3. It's a lovely theory but I'm afraid I don't agree.

    There's nothing stylistically strong enough in that Chums story to point towards Leslie's authorship. Read his early work from 1925 through to say 1928 and there's something about the plot, characters and the use of language that's so unmistakeably Leslie. This one doesn't have it.

    Additionally Leslie was, as he once described the Saint, "pleasantly egotistical" and never published anything that wasn't under his own name or a close variant there of, until the latter end of his career. Anything published after October 1926, when he legally changed his name, came out under the Charteris byline, anything published before then came out under names such as "Leslie C. Bowyer" (the author of 'One Crowded Hour' in the January 1925 edition of Sovereign Magazine.).

    And for your information there is no 'big mystery' surrounding his writing career. You'll be able to read all about it soon enough...

  4. For many, soon enough would surely be NOW!

  5. Well the publisher's just checking that all 100k+ words are in the right order...

  6. Tbat's great news, Ian. It has been a long time coming, but I'm sure it will have been worth the wait.