I’m going to start my review of this First World War thriller with what, for me, is one of the most terrible confessions a man can make. I am a book thief.
My copy of Greenmantle, now tattered, its spine weak from years of rereading, and its faded red cloth cover falling apart at the hinges, still has the book plate of my school library. I borrowed the book and loved it so much, I never returned it. More than fifty years later, I still cherish it too much to part with.
Over the years my habit has been to read compulsively, bingeing on stories and authors I love; reading and rereading them, obsessed as any addict in a smoke-filled Limehouse den. But Greenmantle has remained my opiate of choice during a lifetime of literary addictions – the book I return to so that I can relive the thrill of my first adventure story.
Curiously, the older I’ve grown and the more experienced I’ve become as a writer, the more ashamed I’ve become of loving this book so much, as though it were nothing more than an embarrassing juvenile infatuation. But there is much, much more to this little book than merely teenage love, and much more to its author, as I want now to tell.
First, the story itself. Intrepid spy and soldier Richard Hannay is convalescing in London in 1915 after a major battle in Flanders. Only a year earlier, he had saved Britain’s greatest secrets from falling into the hands of a German spy ring in The Thirty Nine Steps. Now, the spymaster he encountered in that earlier book, Sir Walter Bullivant, sends for Hannay and asks again for his help.
The enemy is once more the German secret service, but this time, they are even more devilishly cunning in their planning, and the stakes are even higher. The Germans have latched onto a Muslim holy man – “The Emerald” or Greenmantle of the title – and they are making him a pawn in their game throughout the Arab world, using him to whip up Muslim fundmentalists to declare jihad against the hated British – a plot with a surprisingly modern ring.
Together with a small band of friends, Hannay’s task is go into the enemy’s heartland, Germany itself, disguised as a Boer who hates the British, and ferret out the secret of Greenmantle, and put an end to the German plan before they succeed in setting the Middle East ablaze.
To help him, Hannay has a small dedicated band. There is his old friend Sandy Arbuthnot, an experienced Arabist, linguist and master of disguise who can disappear as easily into the backstreets of Berlin as into a Turkish bazaar. There is a grizzled old hand from his days in South Africa, Pieter Pienaar, able to pass for a Boer, like Hannay. And there is a dyspeptic American businessman, John S. Blenkiron who can travel innocently as a neutral.
Each has his adventures and brushes with danger, which form the tapestry of the story. Those dangers include a ruthless and mysterious femme fatale, German masterspy Hilda von Einem, and her bulldog aide Colonel Ulrich von Stumm.
One can see plenty of opportunity for clichés in reviewing Greenmantle. Like most of Buchan’s work, it is a ripping yarn, boy’s own adventure, another episode of the Great Game. It has cliché heroes and villains in the dauntless Hannay and the ruthless von Einem.
Yet from our modern perspective it’s easy to forget that many of these tropes were originated by Buchan in these early action-adventure thrillers. Hannay is perhaps the earliest prototype of James Bond – the secret agent whose loyalty is to his country. The dangers that Britain and Hannay face are as much those of psychological warfare as they are physical dangers – indeed Buchan’s identification of resurgent fundamentalist Islamists as a powerful enemy of the west is astonishing in the light of modern developments.
It wasn’t only Ian Fleming who borrowed from Buchan. The 1985 Hollywood action-adventure “The Jewel of the Nile” also lifted the central premise of a Muslim holy man – The Jewel – being used as the pawn in a jihadist plot.
Buchan’s prose is laconic, like his hero. There are no wasted words. But he was also capable of infusing poetry into even the most mundane description. When Hanny is being briefed on his mission by Sir Walter at the Foreign Office, for instance:-
Sir Walter had lowered his voice and was speaking very slow and
distinct. I could hear the rain dripping from the eaves of the window,
and far off the hoot of taxis in Whitehall.
That tiny, deft detail, the trivial impatience of taxi drivers who know nothing of great secrets and great affairs of state, still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as I eavesdrop on the two men in their high office.
Again, such writing may be commonplace today but in 1916 it was one of the sources of the kind of terse, fast-moving prose that later journalists like Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway and Ian Fleming were to use so effectively.
But there is even more to marvel at here. Because Buchan wrote Greenmantle specifically because he had been asked by Charles Masterman, a Liberal MP who was head of the secret British War Propaganda Bureau to produce a book, paid for at government expense, as part of the propaganda war against Germany. And because it was first and foremost a propaganda weapon in Britain’s war with the Hun, Buchan took several opportunities in Greenmantle to belittle Germany and the Germans – or at least its wartime leaders.
Disguised as a disaffected Boer named Cornelius Brandt, Hannay is taken in tow by Colonel von Stumm, a caricature German officer with bullet head, thick neck and monocle as well as the regulation arrogant bullying manner. That is, until they stay the night at the Colonel’s castle in their journey across Germany. Hannay is taken upstairs by von Stumm to his private apartment.
Here Buchan sets up a scene clearly intended to tell readers who could read between the lines that the vile von Stumm is secretly nothing less than an effeminate homosexual.
It was the room of a man who had a passion for frippery, who had a perverted taste for soft delicate things. It was the complement to his bluff brutality. I began to see the queer other side to my host, that evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army.
Hannay soon shows this German pansy how decent English chaps respond to that sort of beastly behaviour by punching him on the nose and escaping. Clearly, the German army is not, after all, the most highly-trained and highly-disciplined body of men in the world, but merely a bunch of sissies who like nothing better than dressing in women’s knickers.
At another point in the story Hannay, in disguise, is travelling through wartime Germany and just happens to meet the Kaiser, to whom he is introduced. It is plain from the gaunt, haggard expression on the Kaiser’s face that he is a beaten man and that Germany is already finished, though it is only early 1916. Hannay tells us;
The last I saw of him was a figure moving like a sleep-walker, with no spring in his step, amid his tall suite. I felt that I was looking on at a far bigger tragedy than any I had seen in action. Here was one that had loosed Hell, and the furies of Hell had got hold of him. . . I would not have been in his shoes for the throne of the Universe . . .
Buchan is most often criticised today for the coincidences he employs as plotting devices. Yet he anticipated this criticism in the foreword to Greenmantle where he wrote of his tale;
Let no man or woman call its events improbable. The war has driven
that word from our vocabulary, and melodrama has become the prosiest
realism. Things unimagined before happen daily to our friends by sea
Buchan was able to write Greenmantle with some authority because he was himself both a soldier and a spymaster. By the end of the War he was head of the War Propaganda Bureau. He was also a director of his own publishing company, Nelsons, and as an editor he originated the idea of the weekly part-work (again paid for by the government) on the First World War.
For modern thriller audiences there is plenty of more sophisticated fare available – Forsyth, Clancy, Ludlum. But there is a freshness, an originality, and a magic in Greenmantle that no modern writer quite has.
I will not be returning my copy. I am still a book thief.