|This is the cover of the edition I own. |
It is a constant source of amusement.
Richard Hannay is in the middle of a distinguished career in charge of the Lennox Highlanders when a bullet at Loos sends him home on furlough, and an old political ally, Sir Walter Bullivant, calls him up to London. They need him to give up his Lennox Highlanders and volunteer again for the secret service. They don't know what the mission is; they only know that something or someone is setting the whole Islamic world ablaze for the German cause, which could bring the Allied troops crashing down. The leader of the cause must be stopped. But the only clue they have, discovered by Sir Walter's valiant, (and now dead) son Harry, is a paper with three words written on it: "Kasredin", "Cancer", and "v.I.". The source of the Islamic uprising is somewhere in the Middle East.
That is all the information they can give him.
Richard teams up with a "nootral" American John Blenkiron, who can only eat milk and crackers; Scotsman Sandy Arbuthnot, the high strung and well travelled second son of a baron; and Peter Pienaar, a rough and tumble, simple-hearted velds-man with an unfortunate temper around Germans. Their plan: split up around the Middle East to do some digging and meet in Constantinople on the 17th of January to pool their information.
It's a cause that may very well bring four level-headed soldiers under its spell.
Sandy Arbuthnot makes up a fascinating character study in this book. He's a valiant man, able to take a dare and make a plan and mix in with the natives pretty much anywhere. But he's also a sympathetic man with a more tender conscience than Richard. Richard is a soldier and an unimaginative thinker. If a car needs to be stolen, he steals it. If a lie needs to be told, he'll lie without a second thought. Sandy will do the same things up to a point, but as the pressure gets greater, the beautiful glass of his ideal starts to crack under the heat.
Sandy was a man of genius--as much as anybody I ever struck--but he had the defects of such high-strung, fanciful souls. He would take more than mortal risks, and you couldn't scare him by any ordinary terror. But let his old conscience get cross-eyed, let him find himself in some situation which in his eyes involved his honour, and he might go stark crazy. ~Chapter 19I find it fascinating that Buchan creates a man who is tempted by the evil they are fighting against, and grieves that he is tempted. But he's not legalistic, nor moralistic. He's willing to do anything it takes to get the job done, if he can hold out long enough.
All Buchan books have language and profanity in them, and since there are mostly male characters, they have no restraints. They're not crude, mostly the classic British stuff you'll find in Sayers and Cristie novels, but for some reason it bothered me more than usual this time and made the book less enjoyable. It is not right when one moment a man is praying earnestly to God that he will see the dawn, and next is yelling his name in vain over the barricade when he sees the enemy coming. I don't like language, but it's hard to find WWI novels, and since I'm writing a WWI book, and Buchan writes from a solid worldview, I chose to keep going. Now I have a copy whited-out of the language that I can read in peace.
Buchan starts romanticizing like Sandy now and then, and once or twice gets a bit carried away with the noble savage mentality of the Islamic world. The whole lot of them--Richard, John, and Sandy (with the blessed exception of Peter) get a bit touched by the madness of the cause they're working against, even though it is a worship of Allah and not of the Christianity. His conclusion is a little weak towards the end--he kind of leaves it hanging as to the ideals they're fighting against. But the action of the climax is superb. Peter's crawl through no-man's-land, the stronghold, wondering if the Russians will come through in time, choosing who will have a chance at living and who will not--it is non-stop, tight writing with a good mix of action, introspection, and character development. Buchan shines in plotting and characterization, and if you're a writer of any form of drama or suspense you should give him a try. He's good for you.
*Young readers may wish to skip the next section.*
The most interesting note I found in this story was actually when Richard was picking up clues from a German woman. I've been mulling over romance and sexualty in fiction, and it's fascinating when an author you respect--especially a male author--addresses the issue from a male character's perspective:
I see I have written that I knew nothing about women. But every man has in his bones a consciousness of sex. I was shy and perturbed, but horribly fascinated. This slim woman, poised exquisitely like some statue between the pillared lights, with her fair cloud of hair, her long delicate face, and her pale bright eyes, had the glamour of a wild dream. I hated her instinctively, hated her intensely, but I longed to arouse her interest. To be valued coldly by those eyes was an offence to my manhood, and I felt antagonism rising within me. ~Chapter 14I've had a lot of discussions on the boundaries of how to portray sexual attraction in literature. The end of it all is that it exists, and there's a way to do it tasteful and honestly. And from what I've read of Buchan, I would take my pattern after him.
*end of section*
As a final note, Buchan portrays us Americans as good-hearted chaps who help make up the salt of the earth, so I give him an extra star for a most laudable and patriotic sense of brotherhood.
A side note for you Buchan fans: Can you tell me if the Harry Bullivant that Sir Walter says was killed in the first chapter of Greenmantle is the politically naive young man that rescued Richard after his car fell in the ditch in The 39 Steps? I connected the two names, but wasn't sure.