Review: Greenmantle, John Buchan

Rating: 4 out of 5

A thoroughly enjoyable spy-novel, I actually picked this up after Mr Hopkirk mentioned it for about the thirtieth time in his history of German spy activities in the Middle East during World War One. Though it appears that Mr Buchan stumbled onto the German plots, and though in reality these proceeded in a slightly different way and with a focus on Iran and Afghanistan than on Turkey, this still makes for a novel that’s almost true to history (excluding specific plot devices).

Given that the author published this book in 1916, it is a wonder how he managed to so quickly integrate so many of the events of the Great War. This comes with a price for the modern reader in the lingo, but generally most items can be inferred—at least the relevant ones. Fortunately, the Western Front is left behind quite quickly in favour of the East, Germany and the Ottoman Empire being the principal places of action. Perhaps the author’s depiction of Constantinople is what I was least impressed by: or perhaps that description is aptly suited for the war. It’s difficult to say, and it was my fault going into this with some expectations (much as I had for the Constantinople depicted in Mr Hopkirk’s ‘On Secret Service East of Constantinople’).

Richard Hannay, the protagonist, is quite surprisingly a (Scottish) South African serving with the motherland’s troops. This makes for a departure from what most British spy-novels and films depict, where it is one of their own upper society who has been given that task. Hannay is different enough from *those* spies to make him interesting, not to mention his skills with languages that also generally don’t make it into a British spy’s repertoire (French being an exception).

The other characters, principally Sandy Arbuthnot and Peter Pienaar, are jolly good fellows who do the task they are given with the least compunctions. One of my favourite chapters throughout was the description (“from later on…”) of how Pienaar made it to the Russian lines at Erzerum. John Blenkiron made no great impression on me (though I liked the author’s way of streamlining his American accent with the ‘o’s), and von Stumm was as bad a baddy as they come, especially for his persistence. The ending was, with that in mind, slightly unanticipated, and therefore much more welcome.

Overall, a strong spy-novel and I’d gladly continue reading about Hannay’s adventures.

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