“By this time I was pretty well convinced he was going straight with me. It was the wildest sort of narrative, but I had heard in my time many steep tales which had turned out to be true, and I made a practice of judging the man rather than the story.”
John Buchan, The 39 Steps, p. 21.Richard Hannay is an ex-pat who’s tired of London, meeting the old bloke from the flat upstairs. The old bloke, Scudder, seems like any other paranoid drunk with dreadful conspiracies to spin about how Jewish anarchist group the ‘Black Stone’ are plotting to drag us all into war. Yet Hannay believes him. Soon it looks like the conspirators are to force Europe into massive war (the book was published in 1915).
This pulp thriller (or “shocker” as Buchan himself called the form) is concisely told in blunt, stark prose and is all over in 126 pages. This makes it feel more quick-witted and modern than its contemporaries (at least, I’m thinking of thrillers and intrigues I’ve read by Wells and Joseph Conrad where the whole world still seems answerable to the wrath of the Empress Victoria).
The gratuitous anti-Semitism is probably the most shocking thing about the book, though I did note that for all we’re told it’s a global plot, we only ever see four of the villains.
(Part of me wonders if that’s all there is of the Black Stone, and they’ve just faked a bigger crowd. Like Macaulay Culkin’s party of cardboard cut-outs in Home Alone, or the cheeky practice of sales reps for magazines to say things like, “Well it sells 20,000 each month, but every copy’s read by at least two or three people…”)
Of course, we later discover that Hannay’s not entirely been told the truth, but there is much throughout the book about being able to judge a man – Hannay believes and is believed on the look of a fellow alone.
It's lucky Hannay knows who he can trust, because none of the secret service can. Even when Hannay presents all the evidence, Sir Walter is still incredulous:
“‘I don’t know what to make of it,’ he said at last. ‘He is right about one thing – what is going to happen the day after to-morrow. How the devil can it have got known? That is ugly enough in itself. But all this about war and the Black Stone – it reads like some wild melodrama. If only I had more confidence in Scudder’s judgement. The trouble about him was that he was too romantic. He had the artistic temperament, and wanted a story to be better than God meant it to be. He had a lot of odd biases, too. Jews, for example, made him see red. Jews and the high finance.’”
Ibid., p.94.By the end of the page, Sir Walter has been convinced that everything about the plot is true. Which all panders to egoist fantasy, in which the hero knows better than everyone else and is the only one can foil the baddies. Having been a surly layabout with no love for the mother country, Hannay has the rulers of the Empire reliant on his every move.
Hannay solves the riddles on his own where even the heads of the Secret Service cannot, based on what he admits himself are some lucky guesses and the courage (or pig-headedness) to stick to them. It seems only he can stop the coming war…
Actually, the idea of foiling some foreign plot on the eve of the inevitable war reminds me a lot of Sherlock Holmes’s Final Bow. Only Hannay’s not sporting the comedy beard.
It also relies on an awful lot of coincidence – meeting an old acquaintance in the middle of the countryside while out on the run, or and then bumping into him again at the worst possible moment.
And yet, its decades ahead of its time, more like the thrillers from after the Second World War than from just prior to the first. It’s paranoia about the sinister plottings of “anarchists” is not unlike current worries about terrorists. Though I’m amused that anarchists can be so organised, and have such a clear, military chain of command.
It’s certainly a great influence on later spy stories. The doppelganger plot appears again in Thunderball. Hannay’s pusuit by a plane over the Scottish hilltops seems to have inspired Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which in turn inspired a sequence toward the end of the (film version of) From Russia With Love where Bond is chased over by a helicopter over the Yugoslav hilltops. Which shows how these things come round – the sequence was in fact filmed in Scotland.
Like Fleming, there’s also the bollocksy “tricks of the trade” – the plot depending on icky generalisations about racial and national types (such as Germans who cannot change their plans). Likewise, Hannay’s various disguises rely not so much on his skill with make-up as just his believing in the “atmosphere” of the part. It’s interesting to see these cheats and clichés so early in the spy genre.
Like Bond, Hannay is a snob:
“What fellows like me don’t understand is the great comfortable, satisfied middle-class world, the folk that live in villas and suburbs. He doesn’t know how they look at things, he doesn’t understand their conventions, and he is as shy of them as of a black mamba. When a trim parlour-maid opened the door, I could hardly find my voice.”
Ibid., p.119.And, like Bond spotting a villain because he selects the wrong wine, this snobbery is a way of driving the plot forward and making the hero distinct from the hoi-polloi readers.
What is very different from these descendants is the absence of ladies and sex, which leaves it all rather cold and charmless. The story would be infinitely richer led by a wise-cracking Cary Grant or Sean Connery.
And then suddenly it’s all over – Hannay bluffs some men playing cards and they run off into the night. If this can be considered a victory then it’s a Pyrrhic one; the war comes anyway, and Hannay signs up to the army feeling (again, as if it’s a good thing) that he’s already done his best service.
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