154. Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast

John Buchan is a late-blooming inheritor of the literature of Kipling and Scott. He is best known for a minor thriller, the Thirty-nine Steps (presented yesterday), and for its four sequels featuring Richard Hannay. The first two sequels are presented here


Despite Hannay’s efforts, WW I has begun. Now a Major in the British army, he is convalescing after the battle of Loos at the outset of the story.

Buchan spent the war in London, working in intelligence and writing propaganda. His school friends were in the front of battle, and he lost many of them. Late in his career he wrote These for Remembrance as a tribute to those friends lost. It doesn’t take much imagination to see Buchan sending Hannay out to do what he was not allowed to do.

Hannay is called back from his soldier’s life and sent into Germany as a spy, seeking out a prophet of Islam who is believed to be about to raise an army in Turkey which will work against the British. His only clues are three words: Kasredin, cancer and v. I. He recruits Sandy Arbuthnot and John Blenkiron to join him. On his way into Europe he encounters an old friend from South Africa, Peter Pienaar, and adds him to his cadre. All three will figure in future novels as well, particularly Pienaar who is the title character of the second sequel.

The Thirty-nine Steps was a bit of a lark. There is no such lightness in Greenmantle. It is powerful, at times verging on grim, and therefore much deeper and more satisfying. It is probably the most unified of the five novels. The protagonists separate and come together, each playing his own part, but the novel never loses its overall focus. The four Brits enter Germany, then make their way down the Danube to Turkey, seeking out clues to their nemesis and finally ending their quest in climactic battle.

These stories are best read in order, but if you only read one of them, let it be Greenmantle.

Mr. Standfast

Mr. Standfast was originally a character in Pilgrim’s Progress, a book I had studiously avoided until I read this Buchan novel. Peter Pienaar, Hannay’s South African ally, uses Pilgrim’s Progress as the touchstone of his life. One suspects the same might have been true of Buchan. Certainly, self-sacrifice for the cause is a strong theme in most of Buchan’s work.

Once again, Hannay is called back from battle to take on a job of spying. This time he is sent into the heart of . . . England? Among the half baked and disaffected who question Britain’s war effort, Hannay’s old enemy Graf von Schwabing is hiding. He was a spy against Britain during The Thirty-nine Steps, and is a man of almost infinite ability with disguises. Hannay is sent to search him out and discover what new deviltries he is planning.

The first half of the book is more light-hearted than Greenmantle, including a chase across Scotland that is a bit of a reprise of the first novel. Hannay even falls in love with his co-worker Mary Lamington, whom he marries after the end of the novel. Hannay untangles Ivery’s (as von Schwabing is now known) plans, turns a pacifist into a patriot, and sees the man behind the disguises. Nevertheless, Ivery escapes.

His job half done, Hannay returns to the front where he once again encounters Ivery, nearly loses Mary to him, and returns Ivery to England. I’ll leave Ivery’s rather odd fate untold.

In the end, Peter Pienaar, who has been a character in the wings throughout the novel, emerges to fight again at the climax, and justifies use of his namesake as the books title.

Mr. Standfast is a good read, if not quite up to the standards of Greenmantle, but it has its oddities. Ivery’s fate comes in a manner Hannay sees as fitting, even though the logical thing would have been to shoot him and kick his body into a road ditch in France. There is nothing unusual in that, but it is hard not to shake your head in perplexity at Hannay’s choice. Then there is Mary, the woman Hannay will marry and who will give him a son. Hannay falls in love with her – a reasonable start – but he never seems to fall in lust with her. One has to wonder how that son was ever conceived.

A critic of Buchan once said that he wished his characters would stop all those thirty mile walks across the moors and just jump in bed with some woman. That isn’t likely to happen in a book published in 1919.   tomorrow, The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep


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