RogerBW's Blog

Mr Standfast, John Buchan 28 August 2017

1919 thriller, third of Buchan's books about Richard Hannay; wartime thud-and-blunder. Hannay has to go undercover among the pacifists and conscientious objectors to root out a German agent.

The portrayal of those objectors and anti-war types in general has all the grace and subtlety one might expect from someone who worked at the War Propaganda Bureau and was later promoted to head its offshoot the Department of Information. Hannay is never in doubt that the war is an utterly necessary thing, and carries this on to the idea that any suggestion that the British leadership is in any way less than entirely right is in itself defeatist and treasonous. The Germans are of course bad and treacherous and need to be taught a good hard lesson so that they'll never do it again; there's not even the slight sympathy for the Kaiser seen in Greenmantle.

After some essentially unproductive time sneering at the conchies, Hannay follows one of the suspected agents to Scotland, and we get one of Buchan's classic stalks across wild country; he really is at his best here, getting away from Hannay's utter failure to understand people who aren't like him and into the natural, or at least the lightly-built, world.

After that it's back to London, via one of those "every man's hand against him" chases that Buchan also does well. Unfortunately Hannay's skills as an undercover operator consist mostly of serendipity. Coincidence is piled on coincidence as Hannay repeatedly picks, more or less at random, the exact place to be where he'll happen to observe the next stage of the plot or get some necessary aid. This was a bit bad in Greenmantle, and here it feels as though all Hannay's character points have gone on Serendipity and he's just getting the GM to feed him what he needs rather than doing any of the hard work himself.

There's a love-interest for Hannay, though her main positive attributes appear to be being "child-like" and "like a slim boy". On the other hand she seems rather more competent at the actual business of intelligence work than Hannay himself.

A near-final section involving a desperate drive across the Alps, then a more desperate walk back again, would be excellent if it weren't so blatantly set up to provide the action scenes. Based on the information Hannay has when he sets out, he'd do much better to lay an ambush at the place which he knows the bad guy is certain to come back to… but instead he chases him, futilely, and wears himself out when in fact his allies had quietly got everything sorted and he was basically superfluous to the whole business.

That's where the book should have ended, but Buchan remembers that there's an actual war on, and sets up Hannay in charge of a desperate resistance to a final German offensive in France. This heavy-handedly foreshadows, then provides, the death of a particular character (boivbhfyl qrngu vf orggre guna univat n jrnxrarq yrt gung zrnaf lbh pna'g enzoyr sbe qnlf ng n gvzr) but if the book had ended a few chapters earlier it really wouldn't have hurt things.

For me this is a pretty dismal failure; Buchan does the things he's good at better in other books, with less of the things he's bad at. Followed by The Three Hostages.

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Previous in series: Greenmantle | Series: Richard Hannay | Next in series: The Three Hostages

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