Greenmantle – John Buchan
It is astonishing how a book so resonant of its own time can still touch on issues pertinent today. Greenmantle, first published in 1916, is the second, and to my mine, the best of the five novels featuring the derring-do of Richard Hannay. Set in November 1915 the British have caught wind that the Germans with their Turkish allies are plotting to set the Moslem world aflame by creating a messiah-like figure (Greenmantle) who will unite them all in a holy jihad against the Brits. With just three clues, Karedin, cancer and v.1, Hannay and his three chums set out to foil them.
As a boy of around 10 and 11 I devoured books like this, surviving on a diet of Buchan and Captain W E Johns of Biggles fame. It was a full fat diet of jingoistic imperialistic fiction in which the plucky Brits overcame incredible odds to defeat the dastardly enemy and defend or expand its empire to the eternal gratitude of the indigenous peoples. Of course, I am slightly more mature now and have come to realise that this was all propaganda and that, unbelievably, many of the foreign Johnnies didn’t take too kindly to being under the British imperial yoke.
What this type of book did teach me, though, was to appreciate good writing and the ability to craft a fast moving plot, features which are very evident in Greenmantle. It is rollicking story which starts slowly with a consummately masterful opening chapter which sets the scene and, rather like a steam engine, builds up pace until it is flying at the climax, the battle of Erzurum, where disaster is averted (natch). It is easy to see how I was enraptured as a boy.
One problem with the book is that it is narrated by Richard Hannay which means that one set of questions, will they get out of this hole, is eliminated straight away, leaving us with just the how questions. I suppose this is less of an issue in these books as we can be pretty confident that with the fate of the British empire resting on his shoulders that Hannay, the prototypical James Bond character, will pull through, but some dramatic tension is lost.
The book has a couple of curious features. Hannay meets the Kaiser who, surprisingly, is painted sympathetically as someone greatly troubled by the war. In such an overtly pro-British story it is astonishing that the leader of the enemy, albeit the British king’s cousin, should be featured that way. And, at long last, we get to meet Peter Pienaar in person – Pienaar was Hannay’s source of inspiration to get through his ordeals in the 39 Steps.
As you might expect with a work of this vintage and with its mission to rally our war weary spirits, you have to fight your way through a lot of clichéd stereotyping and language which would today not pass the politically correct test. The British and American characters are portrayed positively. The Germans are negative clichés; Colonel von Stumm is an ox-necked bull-like bully with effeminate tastes masked by a blustering exterior. The one woman in the story, Hilda von Einem, is a powerful, cruel woman whose independence and asexuality frightens our hero more than any man or army he has had to face. That brief analysis says much about the cultural values that inform this book.
If you can get past the racism, anti-semitism and sexism endemic in the book it is the epitome of a page-turner – Buchan described his Hannay novels as shockers – and is probably up there as the best of its kind.