In Greenmantle, Richard Hannay, the South African mining engineer and war hero first introduced in Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, travels across war-torn Europe in search of a German plot and an Islamic messiah.He is joined by three others: John S. Blenkiron, an American who is determined to battle the Kaiser; Peter Pienaar, an old Boer Scout; and the colorful Sandy Arbuthnot, who is modeled on Lawrence of Arabia. Disguised, they travel through Germany to Constantinople and the Russian border to confront their enemies, the hideous Stumm and the evil beauty Hilda von Einem. Their success or failure could change the outcome of the First World War.
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This book had me sucked in. I couldn't stop listening to it. I started it whilst I was doing a few long drives for work, and had to take it out of the car and finish it up at home.
It may take a little time to adjust to the English, if you are not English. I've lived a fair amount of time in England, Canada and Australia, so it was not a problem. The book was published in 1916, so the language mirrors the time.
At least about this. “Between Kipling and Fleming,” he said, “stands John Buchan, the father of the modern spy thriller.”
A nameless reviewer at Library Journal agrees:
“Buchan essentially invented the espionage novel with his Richard Hannay yarns.”
And a nameless officer serving on the Western Front offered this endorsement:
“It is just the kind of fiction for here. One wants something to engross the attention without tiring the mind. The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”
Finally, this bit of analysis from someone at the London Telegraph:
“[Buchan] understood that in a thriller…what matters above all is to keep the reader focused on what is going to happen next…It doesn’t matter that the reader has no clue where he is being taken or, when he gets there, how the thing happened as it did. All that matters is that once you’ve started, you can’t put the book down.”
The viewpoint that fascinates me most is from that line officer at the front. Granted, his comment was about Buchan’s first thriller, The 39 Steps. Nevertheless, it could apply the Greenmantle as well. It’s a neat trick to write about mortal danger in such a way that men who are living with it on a daily basis don’t chuck your book into No Man’s Land or, more likely, use it as necessary paper. Buchan treads a fine line when talking about the war. Yes, he and his hero are patriotic. There's a touch of Rupert Brooke here--soldiering is described as the only proper work for a man. And it's hard to remember, living as we do at the other end of the disastrous 20th Century, that soldiers cherish the camaraderie that grows out of shared dangers. Membership in a group of fighters who are also friends and the death of some of those friends makes war personal. It is a job that has to be done and there is pride in doing it well. Duty, as Ulysses Grant said, can be a beautiful word. War is hell but it isn't always hell. At the same time, Buchan and his protagonist never flinch from admitting the ghastliness of the Western Front. It's a combination of idealism and realism that may have done much to brace spirits at Ypres and the Somme--probably because it accurately reflected the general attitude in the trenches. As some of the poems quoted in Martin Gilbert's works on World War I attest, as bad as it was many believed in what they were doing in Flanders.
And our anonymous officer was right—like Dumas, the story grabs you and carries you along. So far from tiring my mind, I find Buchan (again, like Dumas) refreshes it. Unlike most who-dunnits I have in my audio collection, Buchan—along with Dorothy Sayers—will bear re-listening.
And the Telegraph makes a good point too. For all its improbabilities you accept the story and yes, you really can’t put it down. I attribute this to that same delicate mix of “real life” and spy thrills that Fleming was so adept at concocting. No doubt, as Hitchens suggested, he learned a thing or two from John Buchan.
Unlike 39 Steps, knowing a little history helps for this one. Fortunately, I recently read John Keegan's book on World War I and Gilbert's volume on the Somme offensive so when Richard Hannay met Enver Pasha or we hear that the effort at Gallipoli is being given up I wasn't completely at a loss.
I’m taking one star away from the usually superb Simon Vance (aka Richard Whitfield) for a slight tendency to trip up ever-so-slightly, every so often in the middle of sentences. I may be overly sensitive—part of my daily work is reading things aloud in phone conferences and I am a lector at church, so I know what it is to trip up ever-so-slightly. These slight catches didn’t distract my attention or detract from the tale, but they were wrinkles in an otherwise pitch-perfect performance.