KNIGHTS OF THE SALTIER
By William Speir
In the past five years, since I started to examine and review the pulp genre field, it soon became clear that there were only two really different types of pulp stories. The first is that of the lone avenger/vigilante who works outside the law to battle the bad guys. The second is the team approach wherein we are given a group of characters who act in unison to achieve the same noble goals. Generally, when reading a new pulp title, I can easily drop it into one of these two branches. It is not often that a book comes along that doesn’t fit in either of those molds as much a break them completely and provide us with a brand new spin on things. KNIGHTS OF THE SALTIER is such book and thus an eye opening pleasure for this reviewer. It is something new under the pulp umbrella and extremely well realized.
Secret fraternal organizations ala the Masons have been around for hundreds of years and have been the fodder for many a pulp adventure. From the Illuminati to the Harvard Skull and Crossbones club, the idea of a group working in the shadows to bring about political and social change has been a well worn plot device to entice paranoiac readers of every generation. What Saltier proposes in this, the first of a trilogy, is that a modern secret society has come into existence with the sole purpose of aiding the police in helping to bring criminals to justice. The group is based on the old English order of chivalry and its members, called Knights and Dames, take an oath of loyalty and secrecy to the group when being inducted. At one point in the story, the Grand Master explains to the protagonist that the only way the group can exist, per its own ideals of civilized jurisprudence is to support the legal system and never usurp the goals and authority of the police. To do so would make them no better than the people they investigate and capture. Their role is to gather evidence, behind the scenes, that will convict the law breakers, then apprehend them and deliver them, along with that data to the police.
Thus the public remains totally unaware of their existence and operations, continuing to believe that the established legal system works as it should. Thus the secrecy element is crucial as is their group loyalty. No single individual is unique or exceptional, each Knight and Dame is a vital component of the group. Which is why this particular concept is original to pulps and cleverly thought out. The philosophy behind the Knights of the Saltier (a symbolic cross shaped like the letter X) is central to the book’s plot and the hero’s reaction to it.
Tom Anderson is an ex-military engineer looking for a cause to give his life purpose. It isn’t enough to work, get paid and socialize with friends. Anderson, in part due to his inherent patriotism, believes he has more to give his country, but as a civilian is stymied in finding an answer to his moral quest. When he is approached by the Knights, he is reasonably suspicious of them and their stated mission. Most secret organizations are radical in nature, which is why the Knight’s tempered existence intrigues him and he ultimately comes to accept their offer. Once an active member of the Knights, Anderson also discovers the groups singular vulnerably, their exposure to the criminal world that they are helping the police combat.
When one of their members turns traitor and gives up the Knights to a brutal mob boss, Anderson and his new found brothers find themselves in a pitched battle for survival. The repercussions are savage and their very struggle to survive challenges the Knights with their greatest dilemma of becoming the very things they abhor.
KNIGHTS OF THE SALTIER is a fascinating book. Speir’s writing is competent enough, although I hope as it matures; it will take on more color and verve that comes with confidence. I sense he is still feeling his way down this new literary path he’s taken on. I strongly recommend KNIGHTS OF THE SALTIER to all pulp fans. It’s not often we get something this original in the genre, don’t let it pass you by.