Tuesday, June 06, 2017

A bit about Buchan, new and old

I've turned to the comfort of old-school spy stories in the form of John Buchan's Richard Hannay novels: The Thirty-Nine Steps and, next up, Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast. These novels. a century old now, can seem familiar and comfortably archaic for Hannay's bluff attitude, occasionally shocking (to today's sensibilities) social attitudes, and, at time, acute and even prescient. I'm listening to the books now; here's a post back from when I read them. 

(Buchan, who served as governor general of Canada from 1935 through 1940, will be on the program as "ghost of honor" at Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto.)

Greenmantle is greatly enjoyable as it enters the homestretch. It's full of disguises, last-second escapes, hair-raising dangers, and all the other things a good thriller is made of. It also feels surprisingly up to date with its assessments of Germany's war aims and its discussions of religious revival in the Muslim world.

Its contemporary feel is all the more noticeable because the book is in so many respects a thoroughgoing product of its time. Without necessarily expressing contempt for commoners, it is shot through with the attitude that war is really a contest between those few, rare men of noble soul and exceptional ability. The German Col. von Stumm is brutal, thuggish and depraved, for example, but the kaiser is a high-minded man whose responsibility weighs heavily upon him.

Buchan is also acutely sensitive to the joys and sorrows of travel. Exhausted and depressed when he reaches Constantinople, the protagonist, Richard Hannay, finds the city "a mighty disappointment. I don't quite know what I expected -- a sort of fairyland Eastern city, all white marble and blue water, and stately Turks in surplices, and veiled houris, and roses and nightingales, and some sort of string band discoursing sweet music. I had forgotten that winter is pretty much the same everywhere. It was a drizzling day, with a south-east wind blowing, and the streets were long troughs of mud. The first part I struck looked like a dingy colonial suburb -- wooden houses and corrugated iron roofs, and endless dirty, sallow children."

Later, however, refreshed, in new clothes, and after an unexpected rescue by an unexpected colleague, Hannay makes this sage observation: "What had seemed the day before the dingiest of cities now took on a strange beauty ... A man's temper has a lot to do with his appreciation of scenery. I felt a free man once more, and could use my eyes."

And the novel's humorous touches, particularly in the form of the American, Blenkiron, are delightful. His bluff manner of speaking will awaken readers to the joys and peculiarities of Americans and the ways they talk.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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