I always felt that I was a better bandit than a detective
Third and longest of the five Richard Hannay novels, set against the backdrop of the Great War as it entered its 4th and crucial year. Its length is its terrible weakness as, instead of depth or subtlety, Buchan just piles on incident after incident until the plot becomes completely untenable and almost incomprehensible. As just a sample, Hannay
- goes undercover in a garden village of pacifists
- goes undercover in working class Glasgow, gets involved in speeches and fistfights
- goes undercover across Scottish Highlands to the Isle of Skye
- is involved in spying and fighting in secret coves on Skye
- adopts the identity of a travelling salesman of religious books
- is chased by police around Edinburgh, jumps a train south, escapes from that into a troop train
- flies south in a commandeered airplane and crashes
- takes command of a film shoot re-enacting a scene from the War as he makes his escape through the set
- returns to command of his brigade in France
- breaks into a mysterious french chateau and discovers germ warfare
- is trapped in the dungeon of a Swiss castle, escapes
- disguises himself as a Swiss peasant
- climbs an inaccessible Alpine pass
- is involved in a life-or-death race to capture Germany’s leading spy
- takes command of his brigade against the Germans’ 1918 Spring offensive
Buchan’s war work
At the outbreak of war Buchan – at that point editor of The Spectator and popular novelist, well-known for his pro-Empire views – had gone to work for the British War Propaganda Bureau. He worked for a bit as French correspondent for The Times. Early in 1915 he was commissioned to write an official history of the War in monthly instalments to be produced by the publishers he was a partner in, Thomas Nelson & Son, hence named Nelson’s History of the War. This started in February 1915 and was eventually published in 24 volumes. Buchan was given the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps and given access to the official documents to write the work.
Around this time he was also commissioned to write speeches and communiqués for Douglas Haig, Head of the British Army. In 1916 the War Propaganda Bureau was subsumed into the Foreign Office at which point Buchan can be said to have officially joined the FO’s Intelligence Department. As a result of his achievements in all these tasks, in February 1917 when the government established a Department of Information, Buchan was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and put in charge of it – Buchan called it ‘the toughest job I ever took on’.
Given Buchan’s role at the heart of the Allied Propaganda effort you might expect the Hannay novels to be unmitigated propaganda, but they’re not. In this novel as in Greenmantle, he goes out of his way to be fair to his opponents, to respect their intelligence and to discriminate between good Germans and bad Germans.
In fact Buchan makes the first hundred pages of this novel a kind of tour of the opposition camp: he is told, on a rather flimsy pretext, to pretend to be a South African sceptical of the war and ingratiate himself with pacifists and conscientious objectors and all the domestic opponents of the war. The stated aim is that some fiendish mastermind is feeding information to the enemy via a network of spies and Hannay is tasked with establishing himself as an opponent of the war in order to sniff our the traitors. But it gives Buchan the opportunity to do systematic pen portraits of Bloomsbury pacifists and COs and very interesting it is. Apart from its other value, as insight into the period, it contains an acid portrait of a whiny novelist generally taken to be DH Lawrence.
Aronson, the novelist, proved on acquaintance the worst kind of blighter. He considered himself a genius whom it was the duty of the country to support, and he sponged on his wretched relatives and anyone who would lend him money. He was always babbling about his sins, and pretty squalid they were. I should like to have flung him among a few good old-fashioned full-blooded sinners of my acquaintance; they would have scared him considerably. He told me that he sought ‘reality’ and ‘life’ and ‘truth’, but it was hard to see how he could know much about them, for he spent half the day in bed smoking cheap cigarettes, and the rest sunning himself in the admiration of half-witted girls. The creature was tuberculous in mind and body, and the only novel of his I read, pretty well turned my stomach. Mr Aronson’s strong point was jokes about the war. If he heard of any acquaintance who had joined up or was even doing war work his merriment knew no bounds. My fingers used to itch to box the little wretch’s ears. (Chapter 2)
England, my England
I read the book as I was walking the North Downs Way in Kent, and I was struck by Hannay’s descriptions of rural England; repeatedly the hero goes for walks or comes to places in the Cotswolds so beautiful that he is enraptured. I enjoyed these descriptions so much that I read the first 50 or 60 pages several times:
The small Ford car… carried me away from the suburbs of the county town into a land of rolling hills and green water-meadows. It was a gorgeous afternoon and the blossom of early June was on every tree…
… Isham stood high up in a fold of the hills away from the main valley, and the road I was taking brought me over the ridge and back to the stream-side. I climbed through great beechwoods, which seemed in the twilight like some green place far below the sea, and then over a short stretch of hill pasture to the rim of the vale. All about me were little fields enclosed with walls of grey stone and full of dim sheep. Below were dusky woods around what I took to be Fosse Manor, for the great Roman Fosse Way, straight as an arrow, passed over the hills to the south and skirted its grounds. I could see the stream slipping among its water-meadows and could hear the plash of the weir. A tiny village settled in a crook of the hill, and its church-tower sounded seven with a curiously sweet chime. Otherwise there was no noise but the twitter of small birds and the night wind in the tops of the beeches.
In that moment I had a kind of revelation. I had a vision of what I had been fighting for, what we all were fighting for. It was peace, deep and holy and ancient, peace older than the oldest wars, peace which would endure when all our swords were hammered into ploughshares. It was more; for in that hour England first took hold of me. Before my country had been South Africa, and when I thought of home it had been the wide sun-steeped spaces of the veld or some scented glen of the Berg. But now I realized that I had a new home. I understood what a precious thing this little England was, how old and kindly and comforting, how wholly worth striving for. The freedom of an acre of her soil was cheaply bought by the blood of the best of us. I knew what it meant to be a poet, though for the life of me I could not have made a line of verse. For in that hour I had a prospect as if from a hilltop which made all the present troubles of the road seem of no account. I saw not only victory after war, but a new and happier world after victory, when I should inherit something of this English peace and wrap myself in it till the end of my days…
… Outside the house beyond a flagged terrace the lawn fell away, white in the moonshine, to the edge of the stream, which here had expanded into a miniature lake. By the water’s edge was a little formal garden with grey stone parapets which now gleamed like dusky marble. Great wafts of scent rose from it, for the lilacs were scarcely over and the may was in full blossom. Out from the shade of it came suddenly a voice like a nightingale.
It was singing the old song ‘Cherry Ripe’, a common enough thing which I had chiefly known from barrel-organs. But heard in the scented moonlight it seemed to hold all the lingering magic of an elder England and of this hallowed countryside…
…For the rest I used to spend my mornings reading in the garden, and I discovered for the first time what a pleasure was to be got from old books. They recalled and amplified that vision I had seen from the Cotswold ridge, the revelation of the priceless heritage which is England. I imbibed a mighty quantity of history, but especially I liked the writers, like Walton, who got at the very heart of the English countryside…
In the afternoons I took my exercise in long tramps along the good dusty English roads. The country fell away from Biggleswick into a plain of wood and pasture-land, with low hills on the horizon. The Place was sown with villages, each with its green and pond and ancient church. Most, too, had inns, and there I had many a draught of cool nutty ale, for the inn at Biggleswick was a reformed place which sold nothing but washy cider. Often, tramping home in the dusk, I was so much in love with the land that I could have sung with the pure joy of it…
Sweet and kind
There’s a sweetness and kindness to Buchan’s spirit, he is good at countryside and good at quick pen portraits of the strangers he meets.
Presently the road fell to a gleaming sea-loch which lay like the blue blade of a sword among the purple of the hills. At the head there was a tiny clachan, nestled among birches and rowans, where a tawny burn wound to the sea. When I entered the place it was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and peace lay on it like a garment. In the wide, sunny street there was no sign of life, and no sound except of hens clucking and of bees busy among the roses. There was a little grey box of a kirk, and close to the bridge a thatched cottage which bore the sign of a post and telegraph office…. I entered the little shop, and passed from bright sunshine to a twilight smelling of paraffin and black-striped peppermint balls. An old woman with a mutch sat in an arm-chair behind the counter. She looked up at me over her spectacles and smiled, and I took to her on the instant. She had the kind of old wise face that God loves. (Ch 5)
For complicated reasons Hannay has gone undercover to try and figure out how secrets are being smuggled to the Germans and this brings him to the Highlands and, eventually, to the Isle of Skye. But not before his enemies get the police to put out an alert for him and he is hunted across the Highland countryside rather as in the Thirty-Nine Steps. He is picked up by well-meaning local gentry with whom he suddenly returns to his full military bearing and in this mode meets the son, who has been invalided out of the war.
The boy looked at me pleasantly. ‘I’m very glad to meet you, sir. You’ll excuse me not getting up, but I’ve got a game leg.’ He was the copy of his father in features, but dark and sallow where the other was blond. He had just the same narrow head, and stubborn mouth, and honest, quick-tempered eyes. It is the type that makes dashing regimental officers, and earns V.C.s, and gets done in wholesale. I was never that kind. I belonged to the school of the cunning cowards. (Ch 5)
The last battle
The book is in two parts, which adds to the sense of bittiness, of numerous hair-raising escapades strung together on very slender threads and coming pell-mell. Once again there’s a volta or switch of emphasis, when the German spy ring which had been the focus of the first 200 pages, which had seemed so dangerous and all-encompassing – is suddenly swept up with no problems, including its dastardly ringleader, who had metamorphosed into all the Bad Men who started this beastly war.
All the previous shenanigans are completely overshadowed by the last 30 pages or so of the book which are a genuinely riveting account of the German Spring offensive, Germany’s last throw of the dice which almost penetrated the thin Allied lines and opened the way to Paris. I can’t discover how accurate Buchan’s account is of Hannay’s fictional division holding the line outside Amiens, but the stress and anxiety and the detail of reinforcements and the terrible casualties and the high stakes make for a genuinely gripping climax to an otherwise chaotic and exhausting novel.