John Buchan: Greenmantle

John Buchan
First published in the UK 1916, Hodder & Stoughton
This edition: Wordsworth Editions, 1994
ISBN: 1853262048
240 pages

There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark.

Greenmantle opens 18 months after The Thirty-Nine Steps in November 1915, and finds our hero Richard Hannay recuperating in England after being wounded on the Western Front. He is summoned to London by an old contact in the Foreign Office and offered a dangerous mission to the Middle East. The Germans are apparently working to foment a massive uprising in the Moslem world which has the potential to destabilise India, Britain’s most important colonial possession. There are only three clues as to the nature of this uprising: the words Kasredin, cancer and v.1. scribbled on a scrap of paper. Will Hannay (despite his relative lack of experience in espionage, negligible knowledge of the Middle East, and inability to speak Turkish) go through Germany and Turkey to investigate?

Of course he will. Christmas 1915 finds Hannay back in Steps mode, dressed variously as a postman, a hiker, and a ship’s engineer, and wandering through the Bavarian countryside to the Danube and down-river to Turkey with the evil Count von Stumm and his men on his trail.

The cold and the wet are the greatest danger, bringing on a bout of malaria:

My legs seemed made of lead, my head burned, and there were fiery pains over all my body… I felt myself getting light-headed. I fell repeatedly and laughed sillily every time. Once I dropped into a hole and lay for some time at the bottom giggling. If anyone had found me then he would have taken me for a madman.

After making a rendezvous in Constantinople/Istanbul (unlike his first adventure, he has help), Hannay soon gets to the bottom of what’s going on and gets on with sorting it all out.

Hannay himself doesn’t really develop as a character. We see him a little more scared, a tiny bit superstitious, a bit shy with the ladies, and learn he is most at home in battle (‘I felt I was coming home’). But he is still basically a bluff and resourceful cardboard cut-out. His supporting characters are more colourful.

Peter Pienaar will be familiar as the Boer tracker who taught Hannay most of his bushcraft. Pienaar is a great invention, as keen to get himself into trouble as to get himself out of it, capable of great feats of stealth and marksmanship, as tough as old boots and cheerfully incapable of behaving himself.

John S. Blenkiron is a chubby, seemingly sedentary but immensely brave American, a martyr to his ‘duo-denum’, who bluffs his way through Germany as a friendly neutral.

Sandy Arbuthnot is a remarkable character:

He rode through Yemen, which no white man ever did before. The Arabs let him pass, for they thought him stark mad and argued that the hand of Allah was heavy enough on him without their efforts. He’s blood-brother to every kind of Albanian bandit. Also he used to take a hand in Turkish politics, and got a huge reputation.

Had he been written later, I’d have assumed Arbuthnot was based on T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), but it turns out he was actually based on someone called Sir Aubrey Herbert. There must have been dozens of these guys inserting themselves into the Middle East without a by-your-leave. In fact Buchan makes that point himself:

We call ourselves insular, but the truth is that we are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remote peoples.

He’s a bit old-time prejudiced, but Buchan is not as jingoistic as he is painted. All told, Greenmantle seems remarkably even-handed for a book written in 1915/16, while its author served in France. Hannay gets on well enough with German civilians, admires the Turkish soldiery, and even takes a shine to Kaiser Bill when he meets him.

For all that, Count Ulrich von Stumm is the archetypical German of propaganda posters, an enormous bully. The other baddie, the beautiful, charming and evil Hilda von Einem, seems underplayed. It’s like Buchan had the idea of a femme fatale, but was diffident about writing her. Hannay shares this diffidence:

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. When I made my pile and came home I looked to see a little society, but I had first the business of the Black Stone on my hands, and then the war, so my education languished. 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.

Bless him.

For my money, Greenmantle is a better book than its predecessor. The stakes seem higher, there is more variety in the action and the plot is marginally less reliant on coincidence. The ending has some moments of stillness and real elegance before the final scenes.

See also: The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Riddle of the Sands

Since Steps gets all the attention, I am nominating Greenmantle as a Friday’s Forgotten Book. I am also entering it in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Colourful Crime category.

Like the book? Buy the beer.

Final destination: A keeper

Creative Commons License

Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in 2013 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Classic mystery book review, Espionage, Thriller, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to John Buchan: Greenmantle

  1. Pingback: The Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge | Past Offences

  2. James Long says:

    Your Buchan reviews are great, Rich – they really convey the fun in the books.


  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Rich – An excellent review, for which thanks. There’s just something about those novels that are as much adventures as they are anything else.


  4. TracyK says:

    This is a very good review. And this is the 2nd time I have heard that Greenmantle is better than The Thirty-Nine Steps.


  5. Pingback: Pick of the month: April 2013 | Past Offences

  6. Pingback: Higgins, Jack: The Eagle Has Landed | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

Make a statement...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s