Richard Hannay Returns in “Greenmantle”

13 05 2010

One year after the success of the novel “The 39 Steps,” John Buchan brought back his hero, Richard Hannay, in a new adventure called “Greenmantle.” Alfred Hitchcock had hoped to make “Greenmantle” into another spy movie, this time starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, but, reportedly, Buchan’s estate wanted too much money for the rights to the story.

The adventure begins in 1915, as Hannay and his friend, Sandy Arbuthnot, recover from wounds received in the Battle of Loos. Sir Walter Bullivant, who had appeared in “The 39 Steps,” summons Hannay to the Foreign Office to send him on a mission to stop the Germans and Turks from causing an uprising throughout the Muslim world. Bullivant supplies Hannay with a few clues to the truth behind the rumors, which were gotten by Bullivant’s own son, who was killed in the execution of his duties.

Hannay joins forces with an American, John Blenkiron, who is considered neutral, as the U.S. had not yet joined the conflict. In Constantinople, a fourth adventurer joins their cause: Peter Pienaar, a Boer whom Hannay knew from his mining days in Africa.

Without giving away too much of the story, Hannay and his allies follow clues, operate in enemy territory at their own peril, and eventually locate plans created by the religious leader called Greenmantle, who is reported to be on his deathbed. By the time they reach his stronghold, however, Greenmantle is dead, and it falls to Arbuthnot to impersonate the leader so that the uprising can be thwarted.

Buchan based the character of Arbuthnot on his friend, Aubrey Herbert, a British diplomat and intelligence officer, and also on T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who was an active force on the international scene in at this time.

Richard Hannay would return for his next adventure in the 1919 novel “Mr. Standfast.”

You can download “Greenmantle” free from Project Gutenberg here, or you can find it in various editions on Amazon, including several that collect all the Hannay stories together.


A 21st Century Version of “The 39 Steps”

7 05 2010

The most recent film adaptation of “The 39 Steps” was produced in England by the BBC and broadcast on PBS in the United States earlier this year. Directed by James Hawe, the film stars Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay, and while it is still set in the days before World War I, our hero is in many ways a Hannay for the 21st century.

Things get off to a fast start as Hannay, bored and alone in London, is accosted by a freelance secret agent called Scudder (Eddie Marsan), who seeks refuge in Hannay’s apartment. Scudder explains that he’s being hunted because of the secrets he’s learned, but before Scudder can spill all he knows, he’s killed by a pair of German agents who have invaded the premises.

While Hannay tries to find help, the two agents disappear, leaving Hannay with the corpse on his living room floor and the police beside him. Hannay breaks away and quickly boards a train to Scotland, where, Scudder had said, some of the clues would lead.

The plot moves ahead quickly, as Hannay must abandon the train, is chased by the agents and shot at by a biplane. Tumbling down a hillside, Hannay narrowly avoids being hit by a car, and the driver and his passenger assume that Hannay is the man they’re looking for – a political spokesman come to speak on the driver’s behalf at a rally. Hannay plays along, but the passenger, who is the driver’s sister Victoria (Lydia Leonard), ends up at his side through the rest of the movie. She is introduced as a suffragette, and Hannay wins no points with her when, at the rally, she asks “Where do you stand on women?” and Hannay replies, “I try not to stand on women at all.”

Their initial antipathy turns to attraction soon enough, as Victoria reveals herself to be more than she seemed at first. They piece together Scudder’s puzzle, working out the coded notes he left behind and finding the 39 steps he hinted at – in this case, steps leading through a castle to a loch where a German U-boat waits. They foil the German plot, but at a great cost.

This Hannay is a somber soul; he’s restless and not sure what it is he’s looking for, and when Victoria shows up, he lets her lead him into danger. She is not embarrassed when they are forced to share a hotel room and undress in front of each other, and later, when she asks to stay with him for the night, it is he who says no in the hope that they can avoid falling in love.

This version of “The 39 Steps” also lays off the colorful Scottish characters of the original novel, putting the emphasis instead on Hannay and Victoria, with their German pursuers on their heels almost from the moment they meet. Hannay is knowledgeable, but not enough to figure out the final turns of the plot. He reacts angrily when he realizes that he’s been kept in the dark by Victoria. To some degree he reminded me of the Daniel Craig James Bond – he’s physically capable, but others underestimate his intelligence, which leaves him with a sour outlook on the world that needs him.

Still, it’s a fast-paced, exciting version of the familiar story, and the modernization of the characters, if not the plot, probably serve to make the tale more relatable to today’s viewers.

Here’s a look at the trailer… keep your eyes open, as it will probably show up on PBS again sometime.

Downloadable “39 Steps” Radio Play

27 04 2010

If you look to the right and down a little on this page, in the box marked “Box,” you’ll see a file called “39_Steps_06_06_071…” You can click on that to listen to one of the radio versions of “The 39 Steps” like the ones I wrote about here, or you can download it and put it on your itunes and MP3 player.

I confess I don’t have much info on this version. I found it on the great site, which is a fantastic source for video and audio files, as well as documents. It’s really worth investigating – the live music archive alone is a treasure trove.

This is a truncated version of the story – it only runs 40 minutes, and jumps in right at the point where Richard Hannay sees Mr. Memory in action at the Palladium. It skips over a lot of the chase, as Hannay finds his way directly from the train to the professor’s home. Still, it’s a fun listen, so I hope you dig it!

“The 39 Steps” – A Novel by John Buchan

20 04 2010

As promised, here’s my review of “The 39 Steps” – the novel by John Buchan, that is. Published in 1915, it was Buchan’s eleventh work of fiction, and the one on which his reputation still rests. It was very popular on its serialized publication in Blackwood’s Magazine, so much so that the story was published in full novel form only three months later.

Set on the eve of World War I, “The 39 Steps” is almost giddy with the thrill of the chase, racing through its 100 pages at breakneck speed. Its hero, Richard Hannay, is introduced as a young man who made his fortune in South Africa, like the hero of Alfred Hitchcock’s own film, “The Manxman,” which I wrote about here. Hannay has taken up residence in London, but is bored with life; whether he realizes it or not, he longs for adventure.

Fortunately, adventure finds him in the form of a neighbor who begs his help. Franklin Scudder, an American expatriot, claims to have information about a plot to kill the Greek premier and cause a crisis in Europe. Hannay lets Scudder hide out in his apartment, but comes home one night to find Scudder dead, a knife in his back.

By morning, Hannay is on the run, having pocketed Scudder’s notebook and a few other items that will provide clues to the truth behind the conspiracy. Soon, Hannay is being chased by both the police, who want him in connection with the death of Scudder, and a trio of mysterious operatives. Hannay flees London and heads for Scotland, reasoning that it bears some resemblance to South Africa. Scotland turns out to be a great destination for him in more than ways than one, though, as the citizens are portrayed as ornery individualists who won’t cooperate with the police search. Hannay takes refuge with an innkeeper, then is mistaken for a guest speaker at a political rally, where he fakes his way through a speech endorsing a candidate he’s never heard of. He takes the place of a hungover roadworker, donning a simple disguise that fools his pursuers; later, when Hannay is injured, that same roadworker nurses him back to health, enabling Hannay to reach the end of his mission.

Buchan’s story has more than pace going for it – it also has believable tension, as when Hannay realizes than one of his benefactors is in fact the dreaded spymaster Scudder warned him about, or when Hannay sees a familiar, evil face entering a meeting of high-level military leaders. Buchan gives his characters, from Scudder to Hannay to an unnamed French diplomat, a mix of knowledge and naivete; Hannah knows much about disguise and blending in to his surroundings, but admits that he’s no detective, preferring intuition over deduction. He bulls his way through the climax of the story, relying on his targets’ feigned British reticence to cause trouble, until one of them slips up and reveals that they are, in fact, spies.

Buchan’s settings and characters are vividly drawn, adding to the believabity of the plot; the accents fly fast and furious as Hannay delves deeper into the Scottish backwoods, but also meets Germans, Frenchmen, and Brits from higher and lower in society.

By way of a spoiler, the 39 steps in question turn out to be real steps, the ones the spies planned to use to reach a boat that would have carried them back to mainland Europe.

Buchan’s own pleasure in writing “The 39 Steps” is evident – according to the book’s introduction, he wrote it while convalescing, largely because he was dissatisfied with the escapist fiction he was reading. He enjoyed the work of writers like H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle, both of whom are mentioned with admiration by characters in “The 39 Steps.”

Richard Hannay turned out to be an enormously popular hero, who would return in Buchan’s later novels “Greenmantle” (1916), “Mr. Steadfast” (1919), “The Three Hostages” (1924) and “The Island of Sheep” (1936).

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