RogerBW's Blog

Greenmantle, John Buchan 17 October 2016

1916 thriller; second of Buchan's books about Richard Hannay. Richard Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot are convalescing from wounds received at the Battle of Loos when word comes from Sir Walter Bullivant of the Foreign Office: the Germans have some kind of trump-card with which they're planning to set the Moslem world on fire.

This is a fascinating example of the principles of the blood-and-thunder novel being applied to the fiction of espionage. Hannay, Arbuthnot, and the American John S. Blenkiron make their separate ways to Constantinople, trying to make sense of the three-word note left by the previous man to try to crack the problem.

The narrative follows Hannay, who soon picks up an old colleague from his time in Rhodesia, Peter Pienaar, an unregenerate outdoorsman. With only the flimsiest of covers, they present themselves to the Germans as South Africans willing to stir up trouble in the British colonies, and get surprisingly close to finding out what's actually going on before they run up against a vaguely competent German officer who harries Hannay (he's casually abandoned Pienaar to a German prison, though of course Pienaar escapes) through southern Germany and into Turkey.

The three meet in Constantinople with only a few more clues, and this is where the coincidences really start mounting up. Hannay has basically nothing in the way of investigative skills, but let him go out for a ride and he'll get lost and find himself at the enemy's estate. Is he chilled and suffering from a malarial recurrence? He'll find a cottage where the man of the house is off at the wars, and the woman can look after and hide him while he gets better. Is he rushing to escape from pursuit? He'll casually delay his escape to look in at a random window, where the leader of the enemy is about to leave an utterly vital map unguarded. Which is a good thing, really, because he actively sabotages his mission in other respects: when in charge of a load of German ammunition going to the front, and presented with a Turkish official who's skimming a share off the top, he utterly refuses to go along with it, both breaking character and making sure the enemy gets their supplies in a timely manner, rather than be seen to connive at corruption. He's a worse secret agent than James Bond, though at least he does without the womanising.

The extreme serendipity rather takes away any tension in the story, as does the way the narrative stops for a chapter at a time as a secondary character reappears and tells what he's been up to. Hannay's mood is always either exultant or utterly dispirited, with no middle ground in sight.

It's all a bit of a shame, because the bits of action that go in between Hannay's recounting of his own mental state are pretty solid – flight through the German woods in winter, a trip from Constantinople to the front lines by any available means of transport, and a climactic run through the battle lines of both sides shortly before the assault on Erzurum, very timely considering that Buchan got the book out before the end of the year in which it had happened.

Yes, all right, everyone Hannay approves of is called a "white man" (and all of them are white men, though some of them are not British); as for the principal antagonist, Hilda von Einem, we can hardly believe Hannay's account of her at all after he points out his utter lack of experience:

Women had never come much my way, and I knew about as much of their ways as I knew about the Chinese language. All my life I had lived with men only, and rather a rough crowd at that. [...] I had never been in a motor-car with a lady before, and I felt like a fish on a dry sandbank. The soft cushions and the subtle scents filled me with acute uneasiness.

So it's not surprising that she remains a cipher. We don't know what she actually wants (though Ruling the World is one suggestion), or how she got her skills; she's just a black box, you turn the handle on the side and Evil Plots come out (not even terribly cunning ones, and shooting her on sight would have solved the entire problem several chapters early). There's obviously some of the legend of Mata Hari (rather than the terribly depressing reality – she would be executed the next year) in her makeup, but sexual seduction isn't by any means her primary tool; rather it's a thoroughgoing force of personality. She is by far the most interesting character here, and so must be thoroughly killed off – by coincidence, of course, not by the hero's hands – to prevent any possibility of her return.

Buchan is of course writing propaganda, even if this was a break from his day job at the War Propaganda Bureau. John S. Blenkiron goes on about being a "nootral" (about as neutral as the USA in 1941). A significant antagonist, Colonel von Stumm, is not only a thick-necked bully but shown to have a perversely "womanly" taste in the furnishings of his private study. And yet, when Hannay meets the Kaiser, the latter is portrayed as an intelligent man desperate to end the suffering caused by the war, but powerless to do so.

It's sometimes a flabby book; even the principals realise it when their wheels are spinning (as in the central section in Constantinople as they wait for something to happen), and the plotting and characterisation aren't up to much, but Buchan is a dab hand with an action scene even at this early point in his career. Followed by Mr. Standfast.

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Previous in series: The Thirty-Nine Steps | Series: Richard Hannay | Next in series: Mr Standfast

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