Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Greenmantle - John Buchan

Greenmantle is interesting on a number of counts. It is an entertaining yarn. It sits in the middle of the transition in the genre. It deals with subjects that are sharply relevant today. Set in the early part of the First World War, Richard Hannay is called from his hospital bed (recovering from a wound received at the Battle of Loos) and asked if he is prepared to undertake a secret mission. After some persuasion he agrees and sets out to neutralise and destroy a German plot to foment Holy War in Turkey.

This has all the potential to be a jingoistic piece of propaganda, especially given its parentage and environment: a British Intelligence officer during the First World War. And whilst it is true there are moments where it approaches the crumbly edge, Buchan always manages to turn what appears to be patriotic fervour on its head. At one point, for example, Hannay takes shelter with a poor German family as he flees from the German military. It is clear that whilst Hannay has no truck with the military ambitions of the upper echelons of German society, he has every sympathy with the ordinary folk of all sides caught up in the conflict. We also get moments of fervour for the conflict. Hannay seems to miss the fighting, but Buchan also makes his character acknowledge that this is, at times, a kind of madness.

The discussion of politics and the social background is what marks this as a transition novel. Most tales of this kind, dealing with adventurers and with intelligence operatives, tended to be straightforward thrillers, much more in the style of The Thirty-nine Steps (although even that was something different to run-of-the-mill ‘shockers’). We also get something of the pattern still used today: operative called in for briefing, discussion of background, disguises, chases, meeting the villain (although we are thankfully spared the idiocy of the villain explaining their plan in full), and a rousing finale.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this novel, written more than 100 years ago, is the subject matter. It is true we do not go into any great depth, but the very fact that an author could use Islamic Jihad as a credible threat, as well as pointing up the fact that non-Islamic powers have been willing to use it as a weapon in their armoury against other non-Islamic powers, is both interesting and depressing. Buchan was not the first to do this, but clearly recognised the tactical importance and the willingness of ‘western’ powers to interfere in the politics and religions of other nations to achieve their own ends.

I found the novel sagged a bit in the middle, largely because it did not seem at that point to know whether it was meant to be a thriller or a more measured novel of espionage. That aside it was well worth the read.