Tag Archives: espionage

John Buchan’s “Sick Heart River”

John Buchan’s last novel Sick Heart River is not a story of crime, nor is it a thriller. It is a novel of high adventure. But it deserves a mention on Gaslight Crime, because it is the final outing of his series hero Edward Leithen – in many ways the most interesting of Buchan’s characters and perhaps the nearest in temperament to the author himself.Sick Heart River by [Buchan, John]

Leithen made his first appearance in the short story Space and his first real outing in The Power House, which we reviewed a few weeks ago. His novel adventures include John Macnab, The Dancing Floor and The Gap in the Curtain.

Sick Heart River (sometimes known by the title Mountain Meadow in the USA) was first published in 1941, given to a world beset by World War Two. The shadow of that war hangs over this book, though it’s not in any way a novel of war.

John Buchan, in his role as Governor-General, had signed Canada’s declaration of war in September 1939, at a time when he would have been writing this book.

Buchan hated war and Sick Heart River gives a strong feeling of his known world falling apart.

He died, suddenly, in February 1940, just days after completing Sick Heart River and his autobiography Memory Hold the Door. But he had been in poor health for quite a time and much of this is reflected in the plight of his hero Ned Leithen.

Sick Heart River will never be our favourite Buchan read, but it is, in both our opinion, the finest book he ever wrote – a literary masterpiece.

It is also a book of admiration for the Canada he’d come to know and love during his five years as Governor-General, with wonderfully descriptive passages about the arctic and the people who struggle to survive there.

Sick Heart River is a novel about confronting death – something we all have to do and the prospect must have been very much on Buchan’s mind. In his early essay Scholar Gipsies, written when the author was probably not twenty years old, he writes of a friend dying of a slow disease, probably tuberculosis. A man who rather than succumbing to the traditional death bed, takes to foot to face death standing in the hills of the Scottish Borders.

“Face death standing” – the expression comes from a Roman emperor, Vespasian; in fact Buchan puts the quote in to Leithen’s thoughts in his novel – “He would die standing, as Vespasian said an emperor should.”

Leithen, survivor of so many dangerous situations, now faces death himself. Weakened by a gas attack in the Great War, he has tuberculosis. The health and strength he prided in having have fled. He is weakened, debilitated, and has just months to live.

Rather like the character in that early essay, Leithen decides to face death standing – to have one last adventure.

He is approached by the American John S. Blenkiron, a favourite Buchan character of ours, to seek out the missing Francis Galliard, a French Canadian banker in New York, who has walked away from his life and disappeared in the north of Canada. Taking a long journey, first to America and then on to Quebec, Leithen trails Galliard and his guide Lew Frizel into the great wilderness of the arctic.

This is not just a book about physical decline but about mental strain as well. Lew Frizel is obsessed with finding the Sick Heart River, a place that should be paradise but turns out to be anything but. It becomes clear that, in his obsession, Lew Frizel has abandoned Galliard. Finding both now becomes the task of both Leithen and Lew Frizel’s brother Johnny.

How they find them and what the quest does to them all is the theme of the novel. As Leithen progresses through a landscape of freezing ice and snow his health improves, he gets back his strength and his will to live. He begins to plan a quiet old age with the shadow of death removed? But is his escape from mortality realistic?

There are, in this novel, some of the finest descriptions of landscapes in Buchan.  His knowledge of the north came both from an official trip in 1937 along the Mackenzie River and the far north experiences of his son Johnnie who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

But the arctic, rather like the valley of the Sick Heart River, is not portrayed as a paradise. The North is given to us as a place of peril and decay, where the native Hare Indians are themselves sick and indolent – so mentally exhausted that they no longer want to bother to even save themselves by finding food and drink.

So Leithen, having achieved the first part of his quest, devotes his recovering strength to saving the Hares from themselves, providing them with food and shelter and giving them a reason to go on living. But there is a price to be paid for such magnanimity.

Sick Heart River is a novel of adventure as well as spiritual quest. A tale of a dying man making his soul and discovering what his life has been all about. But it is not in the least morbid. It is very much a tale of hope. A novel to make you think and consider what life should be all about.

Buchan projects his characters into the spring of 1940 – a spring the author was destined never to experience himself. Cut off from civilisation for many months, Leithen learns that the dreaded war has begun.

It’s interesting to me that many of the first readers of Sick Heart River, facing the prospect of death on a massive scale, must have dwelt on the same questions about mortality as Ned Leithen.

Buchan’s greatest novel has a message for us all.

 

 

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My Quest Novel On Sale

My Victorian thriller Deadly Quest is on sale for Kindle readers for just 99 pence/cents until late on Monday night. Just click the link below to have a look and to start reading for free…

This is to mark the fact that I’m now writing the third book in the William Quest series – it doesn’t have a title as yet. Unlike the first two books, which were set in London and Norfolk, this one is set in the winding streets and ginnels of York.

And – as Quest has never been to York before – this puts him at a considerable disadvantage as he faces menacing new foes.

I’ll let you know how the writing goes. Hopefully, the book will be finished by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t started the series, do seek out the first two books The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest…

Enjoy the books…

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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang by Mike Ripley

Mike Ripley’s new non-fiction book is subtitled “The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed” and it makes for wonderful reading. We’ve both very much enjoyed it and thoroughly recommend it to you. Once you’ve read it right through, you’ll want to dip in and browse again and again.

I think Mr Ripley and I must be of an age, for we both seem to have enjoyed the same British thriller writers in those happy decades, the fifties to the seventies. I suspect we even had the same editions, with covers that were iconic in themselves and which still deluge me with waves of nostalgia when I see them in second-hand bookshops. (We have quite a few on our shelves).

All the great favourites are here; Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Alastair Maclean, Hammond Innes, Jack Higgins, Desmond Bagley – many still fondly remembered, and often re-read by me; plus lots of authors I’d forgotten about but enjoyed at the time. Mr Ripley’s book has made me want to seek out a host of old favourites.

Mr Ripley gives an introductory background on the golden age of the British thriller during this period, which is both witty and perceptive. He examines the indelible influence of the Second World War and Britain’s loss of Empire, weaving a fascinating look at our post-war social history.

He then looks at each author in greater detail with analysis of the giants of the genre and lesser-known writers. Anyone too young to have read these novels as they came out will find this a source of endless inspiration. And there are some fascinating insights into how thriller-writers work. If you aspire to write a thriller, this is a good place to start.

And there’s a splendid foreword by Lee Child, a writer who carries on the great tradition.

Mike Ripley’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a definitive reference book. Superbly researched with affectionate, expert commentary, this is essential reading for anyone who loves the genre.

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‘The Power-House by John Buchan

First serialised in 1913 in Blackwood’s Magazine, The Power-House was published as a book in 1916. At a slim 110 pages, we’d call this a novella if newly published today but at the time of writing, it would have been considered a short novel. The Polygon edition has a very good introduction by Stella Rimington, thriller novelist and a previous Director-General of MI5.  Power House

There’s an interesting dedication to Major-General Sir Francis Lloyd, K.G.B. Buchan ends this by saying: among the many tastes which we share, one is a liking for precipitous yarns. What a lovely description of the kind of thriller Buchan often referred to as his shockers.

The Power-House is the first full-length adventure of Sir Edward Leithen, one of Buchan’s semi-regular series’ characters. (He first appeared in Space, a short story published a year earlier). Ned Leithen is a prosperous Scottish barrister and M.P, living in London, hard-working and unashamedly unadventurous. His daily life is a round of chambers, House, club and flat.

I was a peaceful sedentary man, a lover of a quiet life, with no appetite for perils and commotions.

In many ways he’s a forerunner of Hitchcock’s ordinary chap who gets mixed up in dangerous conspiracies – although Leithen is a gentleman, a pillar of the establishment who mixes in the best circles in London clubland and country estates.

The novel opens with a preface from an editor, a device Buchan sometimes used, presumably to distance author from narrator. The preface states that Leithen recounted the following events during a sporting trip to Scotland. When six male guests settled themselves in the smoking-room for a sleepy evening of talk and tobacco.

The tale is narrated in the first person. As Leithen leaves the House of Commons, Tommy Deloraine, a fellow M.P and old pal, tells him he’s setting off abroad. He’s hot on the trail of a friend who has disappeared after getting mixed up with strange company.

Leithen has a presentiment that trouble’s brewing at home in London and decides to be watchful. Shortly afterwards, he gets his first intimation of what’s going on and the game’s afoot.

Despite being concise in length, I’ve always regarded The Power-House as one of the great London novels. Buchan was the most wonderful writer of landscape, renowned for his lyrical description of wild Scotland but equally skilled at depicting pastoral England or the crowded capital in May.

Out of doors it was jolly spring weather; there was greenery in Parliament Square and bits of gay colour, and a light wind was blowing up from the river.

In thriller-writing it’s customary for atmosphere to be sacrificed to exciting pace. With Buchan, you always get both. He was superb at evoking the dull, secretive grey streets north of Oxford Street in London’s West End. In The Power-House, you can see the seeds of several ideas later used in the Richard Hannay shockers. He returned to this part of London with great effect in The Three Hostages, published in 1924.

One of the greatest scenes in The Power-House features an early example of Buchan’s exciting set-piece chases. A stunning piece of writing, for Buchan understood that peaceful streets and indifferent passers-by can be made far more menacing than the clichéd sinister settings of lesser fiction. I can’t think of a thriller writer better at screwing up tension by juxtaposing ordinary, cheerful detail.

This is also the first time one of Buchan’s lasting themes was introduced – the fragility of civilisation, its thin veneer separating us from world upheaval. We meet the prototype of Buchan’s memorable villains. Always a compelling adversary with a double identity, cultured and welcomed among the highest in society.

It’s worth remembering that the novel would have been thought out against a background of growing unease in Buchan’s political and diplomatic circles. The rise of Kaiser Wilhelm’s sea-power had inspired another great spy novel, Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of The Sands back in 1903. The Power-House is a snapshot of London just as the long Edwardian summer is disappearing. The lights are about to go out.

If Buchan has any flaw, it’s his over-reliance on coincidence but that’s something I’m more than happy to overlook – and all writers need it somewhere. We’re lifelong fans and think him one of Scotland’s finest ever writers. Buchan’s work was strongly influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson which is recommendation enough.

Sir Edward Leithen is perhaps not as famed as Richard Hannay though he features in several more novels and short stories, all of them wonderful. The Power-House is an unmissable first adventure.

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Codename Kyril

Codename Kyril is a British television spy series first broadcast in 1989 and based on the novel A Man Named Kyril by John Trenhaile. I have to admit, I haven’t read the book, so I’m not sure whether the television series is close to the book.

Kyril

We recently acquired this on DVD. For some reason I missed it on its 1989 transmission. But beware: the TV series was edited down for a TV film after the original transmission, and a great deal cut out. So if you get the DVD, make sure it’s the full version – 209 minutes.

Codename Kyril was probably the last great addition to the canon of Cold War spy dramas, and has the feel of a John Le Carre, though with more action sequences. This is a real edge of the seat programme, so take the phone off the hook and don’t answer the door. It was scripted by John Hopkins, who also co-scripted the TV version of Le Carre’s Smiley’s People.

It has some wonderful actors, notably Edward Woodward, Peter Vaughan, Ian Charleson, Denholm Elliot, Richard E. Grant and Joss Ackland – all perfectly cast and thoroughly believable in their roles.

Unlike a lot of Cold War spy dramas, you get to know who the traitors are early on. But this doesn’t take anything away from the tension. Indeed, it increases the suspense as you wonder when they’ll be found out.

Marshall Stanov, head of the KGB – a mesmerising performance by the late and great Peter Vaughan, discovers that there’s a traitor in the Moscow Centre leaking secrets to MI6. He despatches KGB agent Ivan Bucharensky (Ian Charleson) to London as a supposed defector with the codename Kyril. Stanov fakes a diary, purportedly by Bucharensky, which might suggest who the traitor is. The idea being to lure out the traitor.

The head of MI6 (Joss Ackland) orders his best agent Michael Royston (Edward Woodward) to capture Kyril and prevent the KGB from getting him back, lest he betrays the British mole in Moscow Centre.

In reality, of course, Kyril knows nothing, but his supposed knowledge makes him a target for both sides in this exciting war of nerves. Kyril is hunted both by MI6 and the KGB and his evasion methods and the use of tradecraft makes for gripping viewing.

And is the KGB the only organisation with a traitor in its ranks, or have the Russians penetrated MI6 as well?

Rather like in the best of Le Carre, the Great Game is played out like a game of chess, one move forwards and then another backwards.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot, because this is a programme you really do need to see for yourself.

The production values are excellent, the script literate and the direction by Ian Sharp stunning.

I’m thrilled the Cold War is over (I think!), but how we miss those Cold War spy dramas.

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The IPCRESS File – Film review

One of my favourite films, The IPCRESS File is based on the famous first novel by Len Deighton. It’s been decades since I read it – and its sequels – though I should make time for a re-read, as I watch the film every couple of years. (I have re-read Deighton’s later Bernard Samson espionage novels and his military history. I’m a huge fan of them all).The Ipcress File [DVD]

Released in 1965, The IPCRESS File is a near perfect, Cold War era, spy film, directed by Sidney J. Furie. Cinematography, cast, locations, pace, plot, themes and score, it doesn’t put a foot wrong.

The main character, Harry Palmer, is played by Michael Caine in his first leading rôle. Very much up-and-coming, this part is credited with making him a star. Generally, I’ve mixed feelings about Caine’s acting. He seems to be in many films I love and has a strong screen presence. Though I find it hard to forget it’s him, whatever the part. Fortunately, he’s well-cast here as a laconic, working-class Londoner.

Apparently the part was first offered to Christopher Plummer – who’d already played a spy in Triple Cross, (based on the exploits of real-life agent, Eddie Chapman). Plummer turned it down in order to make The Sound of Music. The part was then offered to Richard Harris, who later regretted not taking it.

Harry Palmer is an army sergeant working for Military Intelligence, cocky, insolent, very much his own man. His superior, Colonel Ross, has him transferred to a secret counter-intelligence unit run by a Major Dalby. Ross all but blackmails Palmer, on account of fiddles he was working in Berlin. Palmer’s main concern is whether he’ll get a pay rise.

Dalby’s current operation concerns an alarming ‘brain drain’, a popular term in the Sixties. British scientists are going missing. The film’s opening sequence illustrating this is terrific; set in Marylebone Station, nostalgic with steam and porters and deeply sinister. A reluctant Palmer soon finds out he’s replacing an agent who was murdered.

The supporting cast is superb. Ross is played by Guy Doleman, cool, upper-class, finding Palmer and Dalby equally distasteful. Nigel Green plays Dalby, shifty-looking and shrewd. Two fine character actors, they give wonderful performances, verbally fencing in every scene. Green had memorably worked with Michael Caine on Zulu, which gave Caine’s career a considerable leg-up, a year earlier.

The leading lady is the lovely, sultry Sue Lloyd, who would star in the 1966 television series The Baron. The ever-likable Gordon Jackson plays a fellow agent, long before he ran his own department in The Professionals and there are compelling cameos from Thomas Baptiste and Frank Gatliff.

The IPCRESS File was publicised as a more realistic alternative to the Secret Service of James Bond and Harry Palmer – unnamed in the novel – as Bond’s antithesis. This was the first time, (as far as I know), that an action hero was seen in glasses. The heavy black frames worn by Michael Caine had quite a following after the film aired. More tea-urn than martinis, there’s absolutely no glamour and all the better for it.

Rather than exotic locations, this film celebrates a realistic London of crowded pavements, grey skies and dull, anonymous buildings in pitted Portland stone. There’s no sense of the Swinging Sixties, in feeling it harks back to the beginning of the decade.

Iconic backdrops are rationed, though Major Dalby’s office windows overlook Trafalgar Square, all red buses and pigeons. There’s one tense set-piece against the rounded facade of the Royal Albert Hall and a beautifully directed scene in the echoing London Science Library.

Dalby’s operation is in one such seedy building, fronted by Alice who runs a fake employment agency. A lovely performance by Freda Bamford, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, down-at-heel, calling everyone dear, she’s the epitome of an office tea-lady. Except she’s an agent, taking her place at Dalby’s briefing in a smoke-wreathed projection room.

Again in contrast to James Bond, the spying business is shown to be as dreary as any other with tedious, form-filling bureaucracy. The difference being that these lowly Civil Servants are pawns in a deadly game. They’re cannon-fodder.

The cinematography by Otto Heller is stunning with wonderful use of shadows and odd angles. Filming from the light fitting for instance, gives a voyeuristic feel as though the viewer too is watching an operation in the dark, cramped projection room.

One of the things I love about The IPCRESS File is its sense of changing times. It catches Britain on the cusp, when looking back to the War was giving way to a new modern age. In a brief space after the Profumo affair and before the Summer of Love, the bomb sites are still being cleared and brutal concrete and glass buildings are going up.

Colonel Ross, a traditional ‘dinosaur’, meets Palmer in a Safeway supermarket, a new phenomenon to Britain. He’s uncomfortable pushing a trolley, disdainful and bemused by the shoppers. Palmer, an accomplished cook, is perfectly at home. I remember my Grandma remarking on the opening of a supermarket in our nearest town and saying what a con self-service was, making the customer do the work! A widely-held view at the time.

Len Deighton wrote a very enjoyable book on French cookery in the Sixties. My family had a copy. In a scene in Palmer’s flat, when he expertly breaks eggs one-handed, for an omlette, the hands used in close-up belong to Deighton. The author wrote a cookery column in The Observer at that time, in comic-strip, a recipe form which he invented. Some are framed on the wall in Palmer’s kitchen-area.

Another of the film’s strengths is its take on our awful British class system. Colonel Ross is upper-middle, officer class and clearly regards Harry Palmer as a working class oik. Major Dalby, who also looks down on Palmer, is more lower-middle class. He’s looked down upon by Ross (this is getting complicated) and you feel Dalby probably went to a second-rate public school. Ross and Dalby are both at home in The Establishment, a world of higher Civil Servants and gentlemens’ clubs.

What’s interesting is that Harry Palmer seems to represent a new class-less Britain. He doesn’t give a hoot for his so-called ‘betters.’ And he may be hard-up and have a Cockney accent but we’re shown that he’s the one who truly appreciates the finer things in life, such as good food and classical music. Palmer is, what Geoffrey Household – another superb British spy novelist – called Class X, someone outside the system.

The IPCRESS File builds to a very satisfying climax, underlined by John Barry’s memorably edgy score. The effectively tense, jangly notes came from using a cimbalom, a type of dulcimer.

I love the final scene. Brief and understated, it conveys so much about the British stiff-upper-lip we used to have. The IPCRESS File is a marvellous Cold War spy film. A taut, exciting adventure which also has acute social commentary. Nostalgia at its best and an icon of British film history.

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My Latest Book Is Out!

William Quest is back! Deadly Quest (A William Quest Victorian Thriller Book 2) by [Bainbridge, John]

My new novel, DEADLY QUEST, the second in the William Quest series, is now available for pre-order on Kindle at a special offer price.

Publication day is Friday September 30th. The paperback version will be out at the same time. The price will increase that weekend so please do order today for the bargain price.

And if you haven’t read the first novel, The Shadow of William Quest, it’s available both as a Kindle e-Book and in paperback.

Please share this post with your friends, whether they enjoy historical fiction, crime fiction or just have a love of adventure stories…

Regards, John

Here’s more about DEADLY QUEST, with a few readers’ comments on William Quest:

“A reign of terror sweeps through the Victorian underworld as a menacing figure seeks to impose his will on the criminals of London.

On the abandoned wharves of the docklands and in the dangerous gaslit alleys of Whitechapel, hardened villains are being murdered, dealers in stolen goods and brothel keepers threatened.

The cobbles of the old city are running with blood, as pistol shots bark out death to any who resist.

Who can fight back to protect the poor and the oppressed? The detectives of Scotland Yard are baffled as the death toll mounts. There is, of course, William Quest – Victorian avenger. A man brought up to know both sides of the law.

But Quest faces dangers of his own.

Sinister watchers are dogging his footsteps through the fog, as Quest becomes the prey in a deadly manhunt, threatened by a vicious enemy, fighting for his life in a thrilling climax in the most dangerous rookery in Victorian London.

Dead Quest or Deadly Quest?”

An historical crime story by the author of The Shadow of William Quest, A Seaside Mourning and Wolfshead.”

What readers are saying about William Quest…

A page turner of a mystery from the start… I couldn’t put this one down for long as I was caught up in the twists and turns of this richly constructed tale.

Great author, fantastic book. Such a unique story and very well told.

A new hero for these times has entered literature, and is destined to capture the attention of all those yearning for a better chapter within the human saga – it is William Quest.

Great read! Couldn’t put it down.

Superb plotting, believable characters, and a very effective writing style

…a real feel for history and storytelling.

Here’s the Link to Order:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Deadly-Quest-William-Victorian-Thriller-ebook/dp/B01LYGNCNQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1473791400&sr=1-1&keywords=Deadly+Quest

 

 

 

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John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps

Last year marked the centenary of the first book publication of John Buchan’s classic thriller. I blogged on the book itself on March 19th 2015 in celebration. But I want to recommend to you a quite excellent book about the background and genesis of The Thirty Nine Steps, which I’ve really enjoyed reading.

The title is John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps – An Exploration by John Burnett and Kate Mackay, published by National Museums Scotland.

If you enjoy reading Buchan as much as I do, you’ll love this book. The authors begin with a brief biography of Buchan himself, before examining the thriller in considerable detail, looking at the book’s origins, describing the events within chapter by chapter – there are spoilers here, so I would recommend that you read the thriller first if it’s new to you.

If you’ve ever thought of writing your own thriller you’ll find this book quite inspirational; it takes you on a journey across the Galloway and Borders landscape through which Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay escapes his enemies, look at the characters of the various Scots he meets on the way, takes an in-depth look at the way disguise is used in the novel, and investigates pre-Great War espionage and its links with the chase thriller.

There are a number of nods in the direction of other Buchan thrillers as well, so the devotee of his work will find much of value here.

John Buchan is only now getting the reputation he deserves as an important writer of Scottish fiction. It is good to see the appearance of books like this which examine his work with such readable scholarship.

To order a copy please click on the link below:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1905267878/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1905267878&linkCode=as2&tag=johnbainbridg-21

 

 

 

 

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John Buchan’s “Greenmantle”

John Buchan’s classic thriller “Greenmantle” – first published a hundred years ago this October – is the second of his novels to feature the character Richard Hannay, whom Buchan introduced in “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (see blogs passim).

The plot covers an attempt by the Germans, for their own strategic advantage in World War One, to persuade the Turks to participate in a Jihad against the Allies. This makes it singularly relevant for modern times, when the word Jihad is constantly banded about. (Jihad is usually interpreted as meaning the summoning of a holy war; it actually means working for Islam in all sorts of ways).

The book starts with Hannay, recovering from wounds received on the Western Front, being summoned to see spymaster Sir Walter Bullivant (from “The Thirty-Nine Steps”), who gives him a slip of paper with three very slender clues, and then despatches him to discover their meaning.

Hannay, disguised as a South African of Dutch origins, makes a perilous crossing of Germany, partly in the company of the Boer Peter Pienaar, and the American John Blenkiron. In my view these German-set passages are the most interesting in the book. While the chief villain, von Stumm, is portrayed by Buchan as something like the baddie of anti-German propaganda of the time, the rest of the Germans are represented with considerable sympathy. Which is quite surprising for a British writer in 1916.

Hannay, in his disguise, is introduced to the Kaiser, whom Buchan portrays with surprising understanding, showing him as much a victim of events as anyone else caught up in the Great War. He also gives us a German engineer called Gaudian, whom Hannay likes very much (he reappears in the later Hannay adventure “The Three Hostages”).  Even von Stumm is shown as a balanced figure – you can see where he is coming from.

There are passages where Hannay is ill and given shelter by a German family, and a chapter where he works in great harmony with the German captain of a barge travelling down the Danube. Hannay learns from his experiences that the horror of the war is that it often pits decent people against each other.

Given the anti-German propaganda of the time, this is all the more remarkable. Buchan has too often been labelled as a racist and anti-Semite (usually by people who’ve never read him). He is neither. His humanity shines through his work. If his characters sometimes use expressions that sound uneasy on the modern politically-correct ear, it is because that is the way people spoke at the time. And the views of a writer’s characters do not represent what the writer might believe anyway.

In this book we are introduced to Sandy Arbuthnot (based mostly on Buchan’s university friend Aubrey Herbert.) Sandy is a master of disguise, a man who has lived rough in many parts of the east, and can pass himself off as a native in many countries. The character might sound far-fetched, but the real-life Aubrey Herbert did all of that and more. Peter Pienaar is a hunter from the African veldt, a simple man of great courage. Blenkiron abandons the American neutrality of the time to work for the Allies. Buchan was very fond of Americans and this character is a tribute to many friends.

The other villain of the piece is the German agent Hilda von Einem, who has an obviously sexual obsession for Sandy Arbuthnot, even as he is thwarting her plans to inspire Jihad.

Eventually the four heroes of the book find themselves in Constantinople, a city portrayed in a very claustrophobic and threatening way. Here they discover the secret of Greenmantle, before journeying to the front line in the war, at Erzurum, where the Germans, Austrians and Turks are fighting off a Russian advance. Buchan shows sympathy for the Turks, despite the fact that they are Hannay’s enemies. Sandy is shown to have a considerable empathy with the Turkish people.

The novel ends with our heroes surrounded and fighting against massive odds. I won’t say more because I think you should read “Greenmantle” for yourself. But I think it interesting that Buchan, against the fashion of British thrillers of the time, is not afraid to make Hannay and the others scared.

John Buchan was a great writer in so many ways. He is particularly good at describing landscapes, taking the reader right in there with his characters. You really feel you have undertaken Hannay’s journey across Europe to Turkey.

A century on, “Greenmantle” is still an exciting read. More than that, it is prophetic, given the circumstances of the modern world.

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Mr Palfrey of Westminster

We’ve just had a very enjoyable few weeks watching the spy drama “Mr Palfrey of Westminster” starring Alec McCowen – a classic ITV television series from the 1980s. “Mr Palfrey” is probably one of the most cerebral, intelligent spy series ever made.

Mr Palfrey (Alec McCowen) is at first glance a typical Westminster civil servant, well-suited and gentlemanly – the kind of man you see in droves if you wander up Whitehall during office hours. But Mr Palfrey isn’t some political pen-pusher. He’s the country’s best spy-catcher. The security services turn to Mr Palfrey when they want a traitor unmasked or a defector’s motives questioned.

Mr Palfrey is a polite, perceptive individual who uses his air of amiability and ability to fence verbally and expose the spies working for the other side. And when I say the other side I mean the Russians and the KGB, for this series aired during the last full decade of the Cold War. Intelligently, the Russians and those who work for them are not portrayed as villains – as in lesser dramas – but agents who, in their way, might be very similar to Mr Palfrey and his associates.

If you want shoot-outs or car chases this is not the spy drama for you. Mr Palfrey achieves his victories through verbal entrapment. Though like all spymasters he has a “Heavy” to do the physical work on the ground, Blair, played by Clive Wood. He does much of the tailing of suspects, breaks in to flats and offices to plant bugs, and is used to provide an element of menace when needed. Not that it usually is in the rational and intellectual world of Mr Palfrey.

You don’t need the fast action and you certainly don’t miss it here. The individual stories are so tightly scripted that they are gripping from start to finish.

Like all good spymasters Mr Palfrey has a boss, referred to simply as Controller, played with great skill and humour by the wonderful Caroline Blakiston. She resembles, in her bossy attitude and occasional silliness, Margaret Thatcher, and, given the time the series was produced, I suspect the likeness was deliberate. Though amusingly enough you occasionally see the Controller on the telephone to the Prime Minister and it is clearly intended that it is Thatcher she’s talking to, as she becomes increasingly exasperated by the Prime Minister’s political demands.

Rounding off the team is Mr Palfrey’s secretary Caroline (Briony McRoberts) who is, delightfully, the kind of secretary any civil servant might have and who happens to have come into the world of espionage almost by accident. A very clever performance. Most episodes have some terrific actors brought in to do battle with Mr Palfrey, including John Shrapnel, Leslie Phillips, Martin Jarvis and Clive Francis.

Mr Palfrey first came to our screens in 1983 in a Storyboard pilot entitled “Traitor”. This developed with some minor changes into two series of ten one-hour episodes broadcast in 1984/5. There was a kind of reprise for the character of Blair in 1989, with Clive Wood, in a sequel play called “A Question of Commitment”.

Alec McCowen’s portrayal of Mr Palfrey is brilliantly understated and totally believable. His technique for catching spies is rather like watching a grand-master play chess, the moves of the opponent are anticipated, brought into the trap, countered and checkmated. And McCowen makes Mr Palfrey just the kind of spy-master you’d want to confess to. A master-class in fine acting.

This really is a television series to seek out and, thankfully, all the episodes and the pilot and sequel are available on DVD. Not a typical spy series, clever and witty, plays that hold your attention by the minute. Well worth seeking out and a great pity that further series weren’t made.

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