Tag Archives: spy

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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The Riddle of the Sands

Erskine Childers’ novel “The Riddle of the Sands – A Record of Secret Service” has never been out of print since it was first published in 1903. It has influenced a great many thriller writers since, a god-parent, if not quite the father, of the modern thriller novel.

It is very much a creation of its time – Edwardian England, when the British Establishment was becoming increasingly concerned about the way Germany – still a relatively new nation – was equipping itself for war. It was also a period when new techniques of espionage were being defined, though, thankfully, before anything approaching modern technology had taken over.

Anyone who has undertaken any sort of covert observational work would attest to the accuracy of the pace of the spying and the scale of the operation. There are no master-villains, just ordinary Germans, something like Carruthers and Davies themselves, carrying out their own strategy at a time of increasing international paranoia and the race to an inevitable war. There is a baddie, though I won’t spoil the story if you haven’t read it by going into any more details. All I will say is that he is both a towering and tragic individual, torn by conflicting loyalties, not really a villain at all in the traditional sense. There’s a girl too, though fortunately the romantic elements of the novel are understated.

This is very much a feet-on-the-ground spy story, perhaps I should say sea-boots for this is one of the great novels about sailing.

The plot line is relatively simple, and I won’t give too much away. The story is told by Carruthers – a name to conjure with, a kind of byword for an Establishment figure in the century or more since – who is invited to join his old friend Arthur Davies who is sailing his yacht amidst the Friesian Islands, off the German coast in the North Sea or, as it was popularly known at the time, the German Ocean.

Carruthers takes up the invitation expecting his friend to have a comfortable yacht in the luxurious sense, complete with servants. Instead the Dulcibella is barely big enough to cope with the two of them. Carruthers works for the British government – the Foreign Office – but is on leave. A lot of the book is taken up with the details of this sailing voyage (the book comes complete with maps and charts – if you had a yacht of your own you could follow their adventures and route with little difficulty.)

This is not a page-turning thriller in the modern sense. There is as much about their voyaging as there is about espionage, those gripping scenes being scattered throughout the book. But this does give the yarn an air of reality. And you do keep wanting to turn the pages to find out what happens as the two young men are drawn into a German plot to invade England.

This is espionage as it really was, and perhaps still is. The book is presented with an introduction and epilogue by Childers, suggesting that Carruthers has related the account almost as a kind of report to him – a literary device, admittedly, but it is worth remembering that Childers worked at Westminster for much of his career, and also in Intelligence. Writing for him was very much a side-line. “The Riddle of the Sands” is his only novel.

It was published to great success, soon achieving both a popularity and also a great fear in the public mind; waking up the political establishment and the people of Britain to the possibility of a war with Germany. It’s said that, before the novel was published, the east coast of England was little prepared for defence and all the great naval bases were elsewhere. The British had always assumed that the traditional enemy would always be France. Few novels and thrillers have led to a rethink of defensive strategy – “The Riddle of the Sands” is probably the only one to make a significant tactical difference.

There is an element of verifiable truth in the novel. Childers had undertaken a similar voyage to his two heroes just a few years earlier. The details of the islands, the movements of the tides, the hazards of the sea fogs are taken from life, and conjured up on the pages. Childers is very good at evoking a sense of place, in much the way his admirer John Buchan did a few years later. You can smell the salt water and the mud of the islands even as you read. The sights and sounds of the journey are brought to life by the skill of the author.

Interestingly the plot inspired two Royal Navy officers, both amateur yachtsmen, to undertake a similar voyage in 1910, where they genuinely did spy on German naval defences.

Erskine Childers’ book is not just a thriller but a considerable work of literature. It might not race along like a Robert Ludlum, but it really does give a flavour of spying at the time.

Erskine Childers’ end was tragic. He sympathised with the cause of Irish Nationalism, joining the Nationalists when the Free State was established. In the Civil War that followed the schism between the Nationalists and the proponents of the Free State, he was arrested and executed by firing squad. Today we might call it judicial murder. A tragic end for a brave and far-seeing individual.

“The Riddle of the Sands” has been filmed, in a British version with Simon MacCorkindale, Michael York, Alan Badel and Jenny Agutter – a beautifully photographed film, made on location, which really captures the essence of what Childers wrote. There is, interestingly enough, a German version, though I’ve never managed to see it.

But even well over a century after its publication “The Riddle of the Sands” is well worth seeking out. And unlike some of the thrillers published today, I think it’s safe to say that this is very much how Edwardian espionage must really have been. Childers’ novel not only inspired a generation of spy novelists but almost certainly a whole generation of real-life spies.

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John Buchan’s “Mr Standfast”

In the Gaslight Crime blog of March 19th, I looked at John Buchan’s classic spy thriller “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, the first of his novels featuring his hero Richard Hannay. Today I want to look at the third Hannay novel “Mr Standfast”’

Although “Mr Standfast” is the third novel in the sequence (Greenmantle comes second) it is very much a sequel to “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – it concludes some of the outstanding matters of the first novel.

The novel starts in the summer of 1917, with Richard Hannay journeying to an idyllic manor house in the Cotswolds. Hannay, very much the amateur spy-catcher in his first adventure, is now a Brigadier-General, who has made his mark as a soldier on the Western Front. Suddenly he finds himself torn away from the trenches to participate in the old game of nailing a master spy and finding out how secrets are being sent from Britain to Germany.

It is a journey that takes Hannay from a English Garden City full of pretentious individuals to the poverty-ridden tenements of Glasgow. Then on a puffer steamer through the Hebrides before Hannay embarks on a long walk through the Scottish Highlands to the dramatic mountains of the Cuillin on Skye.

Buchan, a great walker himself, and a terrific describer of landscape, is at his best here. As a writer he had a considerable gift of summoning up Temenos – the spirit of place – in just a few words. Unlike a lot of authors, Buchan was no carpet-bagger when it came to backgrounds, particularly Scottish scenes. He had done all of these walks himself and in his youth was a rock-climber of some renown. The scenes in Skye are amongst the finest Buchan ever wrote. Nobody does it better.

But Buchan can write urban scenes as well. Hannay returns to London during an air-raid. He conveys very well the sense of shock in a city than finds itself under aerial attack – an unpleasant novelty for the people of England at that time. Then to the Western Front which Buchan depicts with great validity. He had been in the trenches and the dug-outs himself. Here we have some familiar though welcome Buchan elements; a sinister chateau, sudden and hurried journeys in the dead of night, the tales soldiers tell to stave away buried fears.

Then to neutral Switzerland where Hannay finds himself under cover once more. There is a description through a snow-bound Alpine pass which deserves its place as a classic of mountaineering literature – he captures the physical exhaustion, the sudden bursts of fear, the satisfaction that emerges when the climb is done, in a way that perhaps only a mountaineer can fully appreciate. Then back to the trenches for a thrilling, almost Wagnerian conclusion, where victory is achieved but at a terrible cost to Hannay.

In this novel we see a good example of what Buchan’s biographer Janet Adam Smith described as his “root-of-the-matter treatment”. Buchan takes a character and presents him at first unsympathetically, and at odds with the philosophy of his hero. And then he reveals aspects of the character which show a different side to that person, winning admiration. Here it is with the character Launcelot Wake, a conscientious objector to the war, holding views which are initially anathema to the warrior Hannay. At first it seems quite impossible that they could ever be comrades. Then gradually, over the course of the book, Wake’s real courage is revealed. We see him as a better rock climber and mountaineer than the skilled scrambler Hannay. A man who is prepared, despite his opinions, to fight courageously. The once unsympathetic character becomes someone Hannay can really admire.

Now in the 21st century, when our views on the Great War have become somewhat revised, we can side more with conscientious objectors. But when Buchan published the novel in 1919 the subject of pacifism, of men who simply refused to fight, was still almost too raw to be mentioned. That Buchan can go so bravely against a warlike dominant ideology and show both the martial and anti-war philosophies is a mark of a great writer, and that he can present a conscientious objector sympathetically is stunning given that it was written when the guns were still firing. The popularity of “Mr Standfast” as a novel may well have done much to create a better understanding of the wartime role of the pacifist in the immediate aftermath of the horror of the trenches.

For “Mr Standfast” is more than just a thriller. It looks deeply into issues such as courage. Hannay is no stock wartime hero. He often admits to very real fear, he recognises the bravery in others. His sympathy with the rank-and-file soldiers of a mostly working class army is portrayed as genuine and touching.

Hannay is what another thriller writer, Geoffrey Household, described as ‘Class X’. Despite being apparently part of the Establishment he can mix well and empathise with almost anyone, whether they be Clydeside ship workers, hill shepherds, private soldiers, or ministers of the crown and generals. It shows Buchan’s immense interest in people as individuals, rather than stock characters or folk penned into an artificial and quite ridiculous class structure. If he occasionally falls down to the modern reader with language that might be judged politically incorrect, it is because he was a man writing near a century ago, in a very different world with much different mores.

John Buchan famously described the Hannay novels as ‘shockers’, not intended to be taken very seriously amongst his wider canon of historical novels and straight histories. I think you can take humility too far. And I do wonder, in his heart, if he recognised just how good a novel like “Mr Standfast” really was?

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Balmoral Kill – A new thriller by John Bainbridge

Now in paperback and on Kindle – a new novel by John Bainbridge.  

BALMORAL KILL by John Bainbridge

Autumn 1937 – Europe is hastening towards war. As the King retreats to Balmoral, sinister forces aim to overthrow the British establishment, making the country an easy target for Hitler’s Third Reich. As time runs out a few desperate men are the last line of defence against the enemies within. They need someone as deadly as the opposition’s hired killer. <br>They need Sean Miller. As a sniper and ace assassin his credentials are impeccable – but where do his loyalties really lie? In a frantic chase, from the slums and alleys of London to the lonely glens of the Scottish Highlands, Miller must face his own demons as he races to prevent the one shot that will change history… A thriller by the author of “The Shadow of William Quest”.

Please click on the link for more information or to order a copy:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Balmoral-Kill-Sean-Miller-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00Q8I7LGO/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1417184491&sr=1-1&keywords=Balmoral+Kill

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