Thursday, October 21, 2010

Greenmantle by John Buchan

Witch Wood
is often cited as Buchan's greatest work, but there's a vocal minority that prefers Greenmantle, the gripping sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps. Hitchcock was a fan, of course, and sadly never got to make the Greenmantle movie he wished for. Interestingly, in more recent years Greenmantle has spearheaded Buchan's resurgence in popularity: dealing as it does with Islam as a global force, there are probably a dozen articles on the Internet right now talking about JB's uncanny prescience.

In Greenmantle, we once again meet Richard Hannay, now a major, convalescing after Loos. Hannay looks forward to getting back to active service, but then he's summoned to the War Office and given a secret mission: he must put together a small team with which to infiltrate Germany. Word has come of a mysterious secret weapon that might win Germany the war, and Hannay must find out what it is and stop it.

Hannay puts together his team: Sandy “of Arabia” Arbuthnot will travel in from the Middle East in disguise (when reading Buchan, never discount the possibility that the sinister one-eyed Chinese cult leader is actually Sandy in disguise), using his contacts in the Eastern underworld to find out what he can. John Scantlebury Blenkiron, benevolent neutral, will travel in state as an American diplomat. Hannay himself, together with old friend and mentor Peter Pienaar, will pose as dim and illiterate Boer deserters looking for a fight.

Alone and in danger, the pair of them work their way across wartime Germany, down the Danube to Constantinople, and into the heart of a sinister conspiracy to ignite a whole new arena of war. The trademark Buchan suspense, full of exhilaration as well as foreboding, is never more powerful than here in Greenmantle. Hannay walks a high-wire: if he ceases to think like a spy, he won't be able to do his vitally important job; but unless he thinks like a back-veldt Boer, he'll make a mistake that can't be glossed over, and he'll be caught.

Greenmantle is JB at his finest, and it casts The Thirty-Nine Steps in the shade. One of the many improvements is in the characters and characterisation. I particularly like the way JB develops Hannay's character: in order to get to Constantinople from Germany, he gets a job delivering munitions to the Turks, where he knows, he knows they will be used to mop up the ANZACs at Gallipolli. But when a corrupt official tries a little funny business with the accounts and tries to bribe him, Hannay hits the roof and insists on everything being fully paid for. The endearing thing is that later on, he realises how stupid this is—the more corruption, the better for the Allies.

Then there's the sympathetic characterisation of the German people Hannay meets on his way—including, surprisingly, Kaisar Wilhelm II himself. In fact, apart from the villains of the piece (“He was a man of remarkable qualities; which would have brought him to the highest distinction in the Stone Age,” Hannay snarks about one of them) the German people are all portrayed as nice, ordinary people with whom, in better times, it would be a privilege to be friends.

But the best character in this book is without a doubt Peter Pienaar (slight, soft-spoken, imperturbable) who makes the capable and tough Hannay look like a kindergartener. Whether it's escaping from a POW camp, knocking out someone with a tea-tray, crossing No-Man's-Land in the dark with a war on, or, oh yes, deciding on a whim to walk into wartime Germany with you as a spy, Peter is your man.

Greenmantle has been one of my favourite books since the first time I read it. But don't just take my word for it—get a copy and read it yourself!

Arthur's Classic Novels etext
Librivox recording

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