Thursday, 25 November 2010

Greenmantle by John Buchan

A classic adventure story, Greenmantle is a tale of espionage and derring-do in the midst of the First World War on the front between Turkey and Russia in Eastern Anatolia.

Richard Hannay, hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is convalescing from wounds sustained at the Battle of Loos when he is asked by military intelligence to go undercover in enemy territory in an effort to discover the truth behind rumours that Germany is plotting to start an uprising that will affect the whole Muslim world. Britain, with its interests in India, Africa and the Middle East would be especially vulnerable.

Arriving in Lisbon disguised as a South African hostile to Britain, Hannay runs into an old friend, a Boer called Peter Pienaar. Together they agree to travel to Germany as soldiers of fortune, hoping to be recruited to the war effort against Britain while secretly making their way to Constantinople. They slip into their parts instantly, going out on the town for a few drinks:

I talked Portuguese fairly well, and Peter spoke it like a Lourenco Marques bar-keeper, with a lot of Shangaan words to fill up. He started on curacao, which I reckoned was a new drink to him, and presently his tongue ran freely. Several neighbours pricked up their ears, and soon we had a small crowd round our table.

Having established that they are up for a ruckus with the Brits, a German agent in Lisbon suggests they take the next morning’s boat to Rotterdam, and from there travel to Germany. Once inside enemy territory, they are recruited by the terrifying Colonel Stumm, a brute of a man who selects Hannay for a special operation in Egypt. Peter has been left behind in Berlin though, and almost blows their cover by getting himself thoroughly pickled:

It was just the sort of thing I might have foreseen. Peter, left alone, had become first bored and then reckless. He had persuaded the lieutenant to take him out to supper at a big Berlin restaurant. There, inspired by the lights and music—novel things for a backveld hunter—and no doubt bored stiff by his company, he had proceeded to get drunk. That had happened in my experience with Peter about once in every three years, and it always happened for the same reason. Peter, bored and solitary in a town, went on the spree. He had a head like a rock, but he got to the required condition by wild mixing. He was quite a gentleman in his cups, and not in the least violent, but he was apt to be very free with his tongue. And that was what occurred at the Franciscana. He had begun by insulting the Emperor, it seemed. He drank his health, but said he reminded him of a wart-hog, and thereby scarified the lieutenant's soul. Then an officer—some tremendous swell at an adjoining table had objected to his talking so loud, and Peter had replied insolently in respectable German. After that things became mixed. There was some kind of a fight, during which Peter calumniated the German army and all its female ancestry. How he wasn't shot or run through I can't imagine, except that the lieutenant loudly proclaimed that he was a crazy Boer. Anyhow the upshot was that Peter was marched off to gaol, and I was left in a pretty pickle.

Needless to say, Hannay gets out of this particular tight-spot, but only by the skin of his teeth, which sets the tone for the rest of the book. Never out of print since it was published in 1916, Greenmantle is a cracking read with resonances even today.

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