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Distinctive Chesterfields Book Review Competition- Greenmantle, John Buchan

The people at Chesterfields (the firm who make those absolutely beautiful sofas and chairs) are running a competition to find the best blog book review, so here's my entry.

Greenmantle - John Buchan

Looking for a book with loads of derring-do? That's fast paced? And that's full of anachronistic and politically incorrect attitudes and language?  Greenmantle is the book for you!

The much over-looked sequel to the better known 'The 39 Steps,' John Buchan's Greenmantle follows the further exploits of Richard Hannay, the hero of the earlier book.

Now a Major in the British Army, Hannay is given the task of uncovering and disrupting a German plot to turn the middle east against the Allied cause.

His only clue to the mystery, a piece of paper discovered on the body of a British spy in Baghdad with three seemingly unconnected words upon it, Hannay enlists the help of a group of friends to solve the mystery.  

Sandy Arbuthnot, a young army officer who's spent many years in Arabia and is a master of disguise.  John S Blenkiron, an American whose lugubrious looks and manner are a perfect cover for his role as master spy and Pieter Pienaar, a chance encounter with whom provides Hannay with a loyal and trustworthy travelling companion.

The story takes Hannay through Germany, Austria Hungary and Turkey, as he follows the clues to the story's climax on the front lines between the Russian and Ottoman armies in eastern Anatolia.

His adversaries conform to the stereotypes of the age, as might be expected of the propaganda piece the book essentially is.  

Hilda Von Einem, the mercurial German femme fatale who in another setting could easily be Mata Hari, the gruff, sadistic Imperial German officer, Ulric Von Stumm and the weak, high handed 'Young Turk' Rasta Bey.   Hannay even meets, albeit fleetingly, the Kaiser during his odyssey.

Despite it being a propaganda piece, not all those Hannay meets as he crosses enemy territory are portrayed in a negative light.  The German mining engineer Gaudian is a friendly, human character as is the Captain of the tugboat upon which Hannay traverses the Danube.

There's even an almost Grimm-fairytale like encounter with a kindly forester's wife and her son, who shelter Hannay and nurse him back to health after a bout of malaria,  in their lonely cottage deep  in the woods.


To read, and enjoy, Greenmantle account must be made of the time and times in which it was written.  Penned in 1916, at the height of the First World War, it is essentially a piece of propaganda aimed squarely at bolstering British public opinion.

The accounts of the 'mysterious east' contain many of the prejudices of the period.  Petulant Young Turks, 'frowsy Jewesses', the shifty Greek cafe owner Kuprasso in whose garden lies the mysterious Garden House of Suliman the Red.  Indeed, the description of the mesmeric dancing of the Companions of the Rosy Hours in this establishment must have seemed exotic verging on the titilatingly erotic to contemporary readers.  

Now, of course, in our better informed, more widely travelled world the description of the whirling dervish like dancing offers nothing so other-worldly.  To the average reader in Great War Britain it must have provided a window to something so fantastical for which most had no reference point.

The references to stereotypes, commensurate with the time of writing are certainly for me, a modern reader,  the most awkward element of the book.  Reference is made to racial and religious stereotypes that are beyond the pail nowadays.  In particular the racist language of the Imperial era provides the greatest discomfort, yet it equally roots the novel in its time. 

There's even a hint of homophobia in the description of Von Stumm, Hannay's burly German adversary, with his 'perverted taste for soft delicate things', denoting an 'evil side not unheard of in the German army'.  Not only slurring the poor chap, who probably just likes chintz, Buchan goes on to cast aspersions on the entire German army.

Being gay myself,  I have to admit to a slight frisson over Von Stumm, the big burly German gayer.  He sounds a lot like many of the Germans to be found on some particular beaches in the Ibiza of my youth.


As usual, I digress.  If you can see past the anachronistic and, occasionally, offensive language then Greenmantle is a rollicking good read.  The adventure comes thick and fast, the story takes unexpected twists and turns and the narrative is descriptive without getting in the way of the story.

It's a great sun-lounger book for the Summer.

Good God Man!  Download it onto your Kindle today, and enjoy as Hannay and friends give the Boche and Johnny Turk a run for their money!