Saturday, June 20, 2009

A shocker

Ok, more spy stuff. This time by one of England's chief propaganda ministers of the First World War.

In 1914, unable to join the army due to his age and ill health, John Buchan decided to write what he called a 'shocker' - what, in its introduction, he described as 'acromance where the incidents defy the probablities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.' What he wrote was The thirty-nine steps.

Richard Hannay, expatriate Scot, recently returned from the South African Dominion (ah, Rhodesia!) back in London to start a new life. He soon comes to the rescue of Scudder, a British spy who has uncovered a German plot to wreak havoc in Europe and things move along at a rapid pace. It's not long before we have our first body and a clue hidden in a tobacco jar. Scudder is murdered in Hannay's flat. If Hannay goes to the police, he'll be charged with murder; but if he doesn't act, the Germans' dastardly plot will come to fruition. Hannay escapes from his flat, pursued by both the police and German spies, and so begins a race through Scotland and England to reach sactuary.

This was no straight detective or adventure story, here was a new thing. An espionage thriller of the man-on-the-run.

These are tales of solitary agents and lonely escapes. The hero is a stranger in a strange land, being hunted by an unknown enemy. Buchan liked to explore the paradox of danger in a peaceful land and how thin the veneer between civilised behaviour and barbarism. Graeme Greene wrote that Buchan was the first to appreciate "the enormous dramatic value of adventure in familiar surroundings happening to unadventurous men ... the death that may come to us by the railings of the Park."

Here we have what has been dubbed the 'clubland hero', the gentleman of good looks and breeding who turns his spare time to counter-espionage and thwarting international conspiracies to preserve King and Country (as you do). He is a moral soldier spurred on by a sense of decency and devotion to country. Conservative and pro-British, he fights to maintain the world lest anarchy prevail.

Buchan's writing reflects the concerns and fears of his generation. He wrote with a sense of the craziness induced by the experience of the First World War. He saw a world gone mad. The world he knew was fracturing. He foresaw the rise of the radical fanatic, Islam inflamed by foreign powers to their own end, a capitalist explosion, the rising influence of America. And of course, you can't write about Buchan without mentioning the problem of 'dagos', 'niggers' and 'fat Jews'. (The debate has raged and I think I have to take the 'product of his time' stance. In later life Buchan moved to excise much of the anti-Semitism from his writing and was actually on Hitler's pro-Jewish hit list.)

Buchan conveys a wonderful sense of place. His description of Hannay's flight across the Scottish moors is beautifully immediate. (Though Hitchcock changed much of the book, you can see why he kept these bits in.) More significantly, he writes with a astonishing sense of the 'here and now'. I kept looking at the publishing dates - he includes what would have been very current events at the time.

The writing is crisp and extremely brisk - the action never stops. Hannay has brief moments of reflection while hidden in a spinney, holed up in a cave, disguised in a railway carriage or sheltering in a shepherd's cottage, but the novel is one of constant movement, thinking on the run and making plans on the fly. It's all very exciting and stops you from thinking of the implausibility of the plot. The coincidence count is incredible and Hannay has a bewildering tendency to confess his mission to anyone who looks like a decent or 'white man'. You'll keep looking for plot twists, the Fifth Columnist, the rat in the ranks. And there won't be one. But who cares?Somehow this all just adds to the pleasure, the guilty enjoyment of the absurd and ridiculousn. Until...

I spent the night watching Valkyrie (not as bad as I thought it would be but, my god, I loathe Tom Cruise). And after that, it was very hard to go back to stories that depicted war and espionage as a sort of boys' own adventure. So, The complete Richard Hannay went back on the reading pile, uncompleted.

Having written this I think I'm all inspired again about the espionage genre. Next up, what is considered the first spy novel, Riddle of the sands by Erskine Childers (1903) and something by Eric Ambler, heir to Buchan, who ditched the aristocratic lead for more radical heroes.


Sailor Lily said...

ok, not a genre I would ever have thought myself interested in, but your review combined with my love of the Hitchcock film version has tickled my reading buds.
Is it a copy you can pass on for me to read?
oh, and for something completely THRILLING and gothic get hold of 'The girl on the landing' by Paul Torday; it's marvellous gloomy-day reading.



you are really back into blogging hey... it's wonderful to read your posts... but where do you get the time to read and blog???? I'm impressed... and starting to think about getting back to my own blog... you're starting to inspire me, and drag me out of that gloomy, depressed mire I've been sucked into... thank you paranoia agent!!!!