Imperial fiction: Richard Hannay

The doctor picked up a detective novel I had been reading, and glanced at the title-page.
‘I can read most things,’ he said, ‘but it beats me how you waste time over such stuff. These shockers are too easy, Dick. You could invent better ones for yourself.’
‘Not I. I call that a dashed ingenious yarn. I can’t think how the fellow does it.’
– John Buchan, The Three Hostages (1924)

I understood what a precious thing this little England was, how old and kindly and comforting, how wholly worth striving for. The freedom of an acre of her soil was cheaply bought by the blood of the best of us.
– John Buchan, Mr Standfast (1919)

Lord knows, Richard Hannay has been in some tight corners over the years, but things have never looked quite this black before; this time really might be the end. He’s pinned to the floor, trapped under a diabolical mechanism, in the locked cellar of a Swiss mansion, from where – as fiendish mastermind the Graf von Schwabing has been pleased to inform him – ‘escape is impossible’.

Worse yet, the self-same fiendish mastermind has already left for an Italian village over the border, where he is going to abduct Mary Lamington, the woman with whom Hannay is in love. Even our normally irrepressible hero has a brief moment of despair: ‘I lay in the depths, limbless and lifeless, with my number up.’

Then he gets a grip on himself, effects his escape from both the cellar and the house, blags a Daimler, and proceeds to give chase. It’s gone midnight by now, half-past three by the time he crosses the border, and a wintery dawn is breaking as he approaches the village in Northern Italy. Unfortunately, his desperate drive across the Alps ends in failure; fatigue takes its toll, his attention wanders when he’s within sight of the finish, and he wrecks the car. In any event, he’s too late: von Schwabing has already taken Mary, and is even now headed back to the house in Switzerland.

The one slim hope is that, with bad weather expected, the villainous German is driving back along the long, easy road. So Hannay and his colleague Launcelot Wake (upon whom he has conveniently chanced) decide that the only option is to give chase on foot, taking the shorter, but far more dangerous, route. They struggle over a high, icy pass – in a snowstorm – at which point Wake collapses with exhaustion, and Hannay has to carry him on his back to a friendly woodcutter’s cottage for safe keeping. He then manages to find a railway station in Switzerland and catches a train that returns him to his starting point by ten o’clock the next evening.

Which, happily enough, is just in the nick of time, allowing him to rescue Mary and to have a final reckoning with von Schwabing. Then, and only then, as the adrenaline of the moment passes, Hannay discovers that he is ‘about at the end of my endurance’, and ‘slumber came on me like an armed man…’

Even by Richard Hannay’s standards, that heroic double-crossing of the Alps in Mr Standfast is an impressive feat of physical strength and endurance. But it’s not out of character. This is what he does, what he is. He is the ultimate action hero, defined entirely by his escapades and exploits. As Mary says, some years later and now happily married to her rescuer: ‘I don’t believe that Dick has any subconscious self.’buchan-steps

The world first met Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, a story set in the run-up to the Great War and published in serial form in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1915 under the pseudonym of ‘H. de V.’ It was not, though, the first tale of its kind from Buchan, for it followed in the wake of a similar serial, The Power House, in the same publication two years earlier, which had featured an almost interchangeable hero, Edward Leithen.

Both characters were to spark their own series – and to develop in very different ways – but this was not the intention at the time. Buchan was forty when he created Hannay, and he was a well-thought-of figure in politics and public service, with an additional reputation as a historian and war correspondent; these yarns were just him having a bit of fun, slumming it in the land of the thriller. ‘I have long cherished an affection for that elemental type of tale which we know as the “shocker”,’ he wrote; ‘the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.’

So when The Thirty-Nine Steps was published as a book, shortly after the serialization had finished (The Power House didn’t make it to volume form till 1916), it was a slightly strange beast.

It was, to start with, very short, only just over 40,000 words. It was also cheap: serious hardback novels retailed for six shillings at the time, while popular fiction – such as P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist, published the same month – went for three shillings and sixpence; The Thirty-Nine Steps, on the other hand, was what Erskine Childers referred to in The Riddle of the Sands as ‘a shilling shocker’.

Despite which, it was clearly a bit of a class act. It was, wrote one reviewer, ‘a “dime novel” and a very good one of its kind, because written with vigour and a sense of style’. Others agreed: ‘Exciting incidents follow each other with almost bewildering rapidity, and the literary style places The Thirty-Nine Steps on a level far above that of the ordinary sensational novel.’ In short, this was escapist fun that was also respectable literature; it could appeal to officers and other ranks alike. And it did.

The success of the book led to demand for more, the plots of which deviated little from the blueprint. The pattern is that Hannay is plunged into the midst of a situation that has potentially catastrophic consequences for the good guys in society, either individually or collectively. With only a coded message as a clue, he leaps into action, chasing and being chased round as many locations as possible, in a series of disguises, facing extreme peril and overhearing villains reveal their dastardly plans. He’s constantly on the move, for nothing is ever achieved by standing still.


Above all else, a state of perpetual motion seems to be the best way of making your own luck. And there’s a great deal of that going on in the Hannay stories.

‘So far I had been miraculously lucky,’ he observes halfway through his first adventure, and it might almost be his catchphrase. The amount of coincidence in the plotting is remarkable even by ‘shocker’ standards. When Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1935, he had Hannay running up to Scotland in pursuit of a clue, a remote village marked on a map; but in the original, our hero heads north simply because he’s trying to evade his pursuers – that he happens in the process to stumble upon the one house on the entire British mainland that’s occupied by his enemy, well that’s just good fortune. He’s even luckier than Leithen had been in The Power House.

Outrageous flukes are one thing, but the real flaw in The Thirty-Nine Steps is that it’s narrated by Hannay himself. The first-person narrative is seldom a wise idea in action adventure stories, because it puts us too close to the hero, who – since irony is not the thriller-writer’s friend – therefore tends to end up a little colourless. And indeed Hannay isn’t a particularly engaging character.

This is okay in a short piece like The Thirty-Nine Steps, but would clearly be a limitation in subsequent books, which all ran to at least twice the length of that first adventure. He’s not really strong enough to hold our attention alone, so the later stories bring in a wonderful cast of supporting characters to keep us entertained. And that’s when the novels really get into their stride…

The second instalment was Greenmantle, published in 1916 and set this time during the war. Hannay – now in uniform, a major in the Lennox Highlanders – is called away from his regiment to undertake a secret mission. There’s talk of an Islamic rising in the Ottoman Empire, the rise of a foretold prophet, and there are concerns that Germany is ready to exploit these rumours. ‘There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark,’ Hannay is told. ‘And that wind is blowing towards the Indian border.’Hannay 5

It’s a cracking good yarn, a whole series of thrilling adventures and crises, and there are happy echoes of the Mahdi and his Jihad in the 1880s (see The Four Feathers) as well as the contemporary career of T.E. Lawrence. But mostly the book sparkles because Hannay hooks up with what we should regard as the A-Team.

First, there’s the American businessman John S. Blenkiron, ‘a big fellow with a fat, sallow, clean-shaven face’ and ‘a pair of full sleepy eyes, like a ruminating ox’. Somewhat akin to Mycroft Holmes, a man who has a tentacle in every pie, he’s one of the wisest and shrewdest operators behind the scenes, but he can’t get out onto the stage itself, due to his chronic and debilitating dyspepsia. His ‘darned duodenum’ is a recurring, and mostly endearing, motif. (Buchan himself, who was on the cusp of his thirty-nineth birthday when the War broke out, was turned down for front-line service because of his duodenal ulcer.)

Then there are Hannay’s two comrades in the field, men so wonderfully colourful and exotic that each deserves an extended introduction. This is Peter Pienaar, a wily old bird from South Africa:

He was prospector, transport-rider, and hunter in turns, but principally hunter. In those early days he was none too good a citizen. He was in Swaziland with Bob Macnab, and you know what that means. Then he took to working off bogus gold propositions on Kimberley and Johannesburg magnates, and what he didn’t know about salting a mine wasn’t knowledge. After that he was in the Kalahari, where he and Scotty Smith were familiar names.
An era of comparative respectability dawned for him with the Matabele War, when he did uncommon good scouting and transport work. Cecil Rhodes wanted to establish him on a stock farm down Salisbury way, but Peter was an independent devil and would call no man master. He took to big-game hunting, which was what God intended him for, for he could track a tsessebe in thick bush, and was far the finest shot I have seen in my life.buchan-greenmantle

And this is Sandy Arbuthnot, younger son of the fifteenth Baron Clanroyden and one of the great fictional adventurers:

Lean brown men from the ends of the earth may be seen on the London pavements now and then in creased clothes, walking with the light outland step, slinking into clubs as if they could not remember whether or not they belonged to them. From them you may get news of Sandy.
Better still, you will hear of him at little forgotten fishing ports where the Albanian mountains dip to the Adriatic. If you struck a Mecca pilgrimage, the odds are you would meet a dozen of Sandy’s friends in it. In shepherds’ huts in the Caucasus you will find bits of his cast-off clothing, for he has a knack of shedding garments as he goes. In the caravanserais of Bokhara and Samarkand he is known, and there are shikaris in the Pamirs who still speak of him round their fires.
If you were going to visit Petrograd or Rome or Cairo it would be no use asking him for introductions; if he gave them, they would lead you into strange haunts. But if Fate compelled you to go to Llasa or Yarkand or Seistan he could map out your road for you and pass the word to potent friends.
We call ourselves insular, but the truth is that we are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remote peoples. Perhaps the Scots are better than the English, but we’re all a thousand per cent better than anybody else. Sandy was the wandering Scot carried to the pitch of genius.

(Just in passing: Sandy’s mother and older brother made a fleeting appearance in The Half-Hearted. It’s a small world in Buchan’s thrillers – if these books were being marketed today, they’d be branded as the Buchan Universe.)

Blenkiron, Pienaar and Sandy are irresistible figures, precisely the kind of men you want in your fox-hole. Not that fox-holes actually figure in the story, mind you. Because in this version of the war to end all wars, the Western Front doesn’t loom very large; romance, adventure and heroism are to the fore, not artillery attrition and mass slaughter of the infantry. We are, in other words, still in the realm of escapist fantasy.

Which means that we also need a suitably larger-than-life villain. He’s not really in the same league as Peter and Sandy, but he is fun: a German agent named Colonel Ulric von Stumm, ‘a man of remarkable qualities, which would have brought him to the highest distinction in the Stone Age’. You can tell he’s a bit dodgy from his taste in interior design, as revealed by his living-room:

It was the room of a man who had a passion for frippery, who had a perverted taste for soft delicate things. It was the complement to his bluff brutality. I began to see the queer other side to my host, that evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army.

I think we all know what he’s talking about.

There’s also Hilda von Einem, another German agent, who’s more subtly disturbing with her ‘curious, beautiful pale eyes’. She looks at Hannay as though she were ‘laughing at me for a clown’, and under her ‘calm appraising look’, he feels like ‘a chattel, a thing infinitely removed from intimacy’.

It’s not entirely obvious quite what Richard Hannay has about him that warrants inclusion in such company. He lacks the guile of Pienaar, the romantic glamour of Sandy, or the twisted fascination of von Stumm or von Einem. He didn’t even go to Eton and Oxford, the traditional education for a Buchan hero. He’s just a former mining engineer who made his money in South Africa. His companions, however, take him seriously – there’s never any of the banter that Bulldog Drummond would soon popularize – and he does have an innate decency, an inexhaustible energy, and an uncanny knack of stumbling upon conspiracies; simply by being active, he provokes action.

His luck also continues through from The Thirty-Nine Steps. By chance, he runs into Pienaar in Portugal, and they go undercover into wartime Germany via Holland; the two are arrested and separated almost immediately, but each escapes their captors and they bump into each other again a couple of weeks later, over a thousand miles away on the Danube.

‘Let no man or woman call its events improbable,’ Buchan wrote in the Dedication to the novel. ‘The war has driven that word from our vocabulary, and melodrama has become the prosiest realism.’ Well, possibly, but even allowing for the times, Greenmantle is at the far end of implausible – particularly when it turns out that Sandy happens to be the prophet who has been foretold.buchan-standfast

By the time the third adventure, Mr Standfast, began serialization in the British Weekly in late 1918, the war was over. In the story, though, we’re at a critical point of hostilities and General Hannay, as he now is (he’s ‘got the hang of our new kind of war’), is called upon to go undercover yet again. Sandy is absent, but Blenkiron and Pienaar are back, the latter – ‘though he was absurdly over age’ – now an air ace and ‘about the best-known figure in the Flying Corps’.

For me, though, the star of Mr Standfast is Launcelot Wake, who Hannay meets in England early on, and who is later to share that heroic crossing into Switzerland. He’s a pacifist, a conscientious objector, though not a particularly conventional one.

‘He was a perfectly honest crank, but not a fanatic, for he wasn’t sure of himself,’ observes Hannay. ‘He had somehow lost his self-respect and was trying to argue himself back into it. He had considerable brains, for the reasons he gave for differing from most of his countrymen were good so far as they went.’ There is evidently much that is sound in the man, though Wake himself cannot see it:

‘I hate more than I love. All we humanitarians and pacifists have hatred as our mainspring. Odd, isn’t it, for people who preach brotherly love? But it’s the truth. We’re full of hate towards everything that doesn’t square in with our ideas, everything that jars on our lady-like nerves.’

In a not unexpected twist, Hannay encounters him again, this time in France, where Wake is serving in a non-combatant role. Here, the pacifist discovers his true self, displaying extraordinary, if fatalistic, bravery. ‘He had never been properly under fire before, but he didn’t give a straw for it,’ Hannay notes. ‘He wasn’t foolhardy, only indifferent. He used to go about with a smile on his face, a smile of contentment.’

There’s not the slightest chance that Wake’s going to survive the experience, of course, but the idea that even a conchie can be a hero sits well in a book whose title – derived from The Pilgrim’s Progress – indicates that there’s an element of parable seeping into the ‘shocker’. When the inevitable end comes, Hannay pays handsome tribute to Wake:

How happy he had been in that mad time when he had come down from his pedestal and become one of the crowd! He had found himself at the last, and who could grudge him such happiness? If the best were to be taken, he would be chosen first, for he was a big man, before whom I uncovered my head. The thought of him made me very humble. I had never had his troubles to face, but he had come clean through them, and reached a courage which was for ever beyond me.hannay 3

This is also the novel where Hannay meets and falls for Mary Lamington. He’s now pushing forty years of age, and love steals upon him unexpectedly. Up until now, as he said in Greenmantle: ‘Women had never come much my way, and I knew about as much of their ways as I knew about the Chinese language. All my life I had lived with men only, and rather a rough crowd at that.’

But Mary’s different. As you might imagine, she’s ‘the most ravishing thing you ever saw’, but that’s not all: ‘There was more than good looks in her young face. Her broad, low brow and her laughing eyes were amazingly intelligent.’ She is also, we discover, an agent of some standing in the security services. Above all, Hannay recognizes, when he encounters her in the peace of the English country, she’s made of the right stuff: ‘For she belonged to the out-of-doors and to the old house and to the world at large. She belonged to the war, and to that happier world beyond it – a world which must be won by going through the struggle and not by shirking it.’ She also ‘moved with the free grace of an athletic boy’. Which is nice.

And so, after three books in as many years, with the war having ended and with matrimony looming, it feels as though we’re taking our leave of Richard Hannay. Respectability and middle-age are hovering on the threshold, and the time for adventuring is surely coming to a close.

In terms of public perception, those first three stories would have been sufficient to give Hannay a status as the very model of the British action hero. Everyone who came after him, from Bulldog Drummond to James Bond, and outwards to America with the likes of Matt Helm and Ethan Hunt – all of them are in his debt. Alfred Hitchcock’s career would have been very different without them: not just The 39 Steps but the likes of North by Northwest. Buchan’s best, however, was yet to come.ThreeHostages

We rejoin Hannay in The Three Hostages (1924). He has – as predicted – become a thoroughly respectable middle-aged man, now Sir Richard no less, knighted for his war-service. He and Mary have bought a country estate in the Cotswolds, and have an infant son, Peter John, named after Pienaar and Blenkiron. Life is easy, perhaps too much so, for Mary has a foreboding. ‘It’s too good and beloved to last,’ she tells her husband. ‘Sometimes I am afraid.’ But the ever-straightforward Hannay doesn’t care for such talk. ‘Nonsense,’ he replies. ‘I don’t believe in being afraid of happiness.’

She’s right, of course. There’s trouble brewing, and Hannay is soon pressed back into service, called upon to break up a criminal conspiracy run by a truly evil mastermind.

Because it turns out that – while Hannay has been revelling in his newfound domestic bliss – he’s failed to spot that society, its values shaken by the war, is out of balance with itself. There’s a lot of ‘stark craziness’ around, as one of his friends explains:

‘Original sin is always there, but the meaning of civilisation was that we had got it battened down under hatches, whereas now it’s getting its head up. But it isn’t only sin. It’s a dislocation of the mechanism of human reasoning, a general loosening of screws. Oddly enough, in spite of parrot-talk about shell-shock, the men who fought suffer less from it on the whole than other people. The classes that shirked the War are the worst – you see it in Ireland.’

This has been noticed too by our anti-hero, a mystical, masterful, mesmeric man of mystery named Dominick Medina. Somewhere between Rasputin and Nietzsche’s Übermensch, he’s the best villain in the series by a country mile. According to Hannay, he ‘seemed to annihilate the world of ordinary moral standards, all the little rags of honest impulse and stumbling kindness with which we try to shelter ourselves from the winds of space’. Mary’s impression is more succinct: ‘He exhales ease and power like a god, but it is a god from a lost world.’hannay 4

The religious imagery is entirely appropriate. Medina believes that ‘behind all the world’s creeds, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and the rest, lay an ancient devil-worship’, and now that ‘the War had cracked the veneer everywhere, the real stuff was showing through’, most obviously in the rise of communism. He intends to exploit the moral disorder in order to seize power.

This is tremendous stuff, made all the better by the suggestion that Medina’s disciples are to be found in the highest reaches of society; they include, for example, ‘the man who led his party in the Lords’. The war may be over, but the eternal struggle between good and evil has taken a turn for the worse, and Hannay’s just the man to get it sorted – especially since he’s joined by a ‘jolly party of clean, hard, decent fellows’, with Sandy to the fore once again.

The problem with a thriller like this, though, comes when the unspeakable wickedness has to be spoken, when we move from generalities into the specific. This description of a dancing club is Buchan’s attempt to portray the decadence of London society in the 1920s:

The babble of laughter and talk which rose from it added a further discord to the ugly music, but there was a fierce raucous gaiety about it all, an overpowering sense of something which might be vulgar but was also alive and ardent. Round the skirts of the hall was the usual rastaquouère crowd of men and women drinking liqueurs and champagne, and mixed with fat Jews and blue-black dagos the flushed faces of boys from barracks or college who imagined they were seeing life…
The dancing was madder and livelier than on the last occasion. There was more vigour in the marionettes, and I was bound to confess that they knew their trade, little as I valued it…
One especially I singled out for violent disapproval. He was a tall young man, with a waist like a wasp, a white face, and hollow drugged eyes. His lips were red like a chorus-girl’s, and I would have sworn that his cheeks were rouged. Anyhow he was a loathsome sight. But ye gods! he could dance.

Well, it may not be entirely to Hannay’s taste (despite that last confessional sentence) but it’s surely more fin de siècle than the fin de monde that we’d been promised. Still, it forms a neat contrast to the healthy world that we see as Hannay and Sandy sit outside a country inn and discuss Medina:

The sounds of morning were beginning to rise from the little village far away in the bottom, the jolt of a wagon, the ‘clink-clenk’ from the smithy, the babble of children at play. In a fortnight the may-fly would be here, and every laburnum and guelder rose in bloom. Sandy, who had been away from England for years, did not speak for a long time, but drank in the sweet-scented peace of it. ‘Poor devil,’ he said at last. ‘He has nothing like this to love. He can only hate.’

You’ll note the repeat of the word ‘babble’ in very different contexts to make the counterpoint clear, as well as the echo of Launcelot Wake’s ‘I hate more than I love’.

The thing is that Buchan’s a very good writer, but he’s not temperamentally drawn to the darkness. His greatest strength – even above the action sequences – lies in his loving descriptions of nature and landscape; he’s happier in the country not the city. That was apparent from the very beginning of the series, when he got Hannay out of London and onto the Scottish moors as soon as possible, and it’s one of the things that make his adventures so distinctive: he is the most outdoors of all thriller writers, the heir to the Robert Louis Stevenson of Kidnapped. The combination of decent writing and hearty healthiness is why Buchan’s work met with the approval of teachers and parents in polite society in a way that, say, Sax Rohmer’s tales of Fu Manchu did not.

As the Hannay novels progress, it’s increasingly the quality of Buchan’s prose that comes to the fore. The stories continue to thrill, but it’s the material that surrounds the derring-do to which one is drawn. In The Three Hostages it’s not just the Cotswolds, but the Scottish Highlands and an island off the coast of Norway that are wonderfully realized.

There’s also the occasional political comment to enjoy. Buchan was a high Tory, and at one point early on, when Medina is still posing as a conventional politician, there’s a bit that surely reflects the author’s position: ‘There is a mighty Tory revival in sight,’ Medina notes. ‘The newly enfranchised classes, especially the women, will bring it about. The suffragists didn’t know what a tremendous force of conservatism they were releasing when they won the vote for their sex.’

And there’s a disturbingly prescient passage in which a German engineer named Gaudian describes the state of his country (remember that this is 1924):buchan-sheep

‘Reason is not listened to, and I fear there is no salvation till my poor people have passed through the last extremity. You foreign Powers have hastened our destruction, when you had it in your hands to save us. I think you have meant well, but you have been blind, for you have not supported our moderate men and have by your harshness played the game of the wreckers among us.’

There followed a long gap before The Island of Sheep (1936), the last of the Richard Hannay novels. Buchan had turned sixty now, and – ennobled as Lord Tweedsmuir – was serving as the Governor General of Canada. He was always a bit elevated for the ‘shocker’ market, and this time you do get the feeling that his heart’s not completely in it.

There are still some good adventure sequences, of course; in particular, there’s a thrilling car-chase from Suffolk to the Borders. And Hannay’s companions are strong. Peter John is now a teenager – a remarkably serious one, with a great aptitude for falconry – and ready to begin his apprenticeship in the family trade of international adventurer. We also get to see Sandy one last time; his brother and father having died, he’s inherited the family title as the sixteenth Lord Clanroyden and is living in the ancient seat of Laverlaw (a name that comes straight out of Penny Plain, a 1920 novel by Buchan’s sister O. Douglas, roping her into the Buchan Universe). And there’s a new associate in the form of a Norwegian named Haraldsen.Hannay 2

Actually the latter’s a bit dull for most of the book, until the villains of the piece push him too far and he discovers his Viking ancestry. ‘I have been forgetting my race,’ he concludes. ‘I have been a coward and I have seen the folly of cowardice. I have been sick too, but I am a whole man again. I will no longer avoid my danger, but go out to meet it, since it is the will of God.’ His moment as a beserker is truly magnificent.

There’s also room for one of Buchan’s funniest bits of leftie-baiting. This is a friend describing a radical publisher to Hannay:

‘He’s a first-class, six-cylindered, copper-bottomed highbrow. A gentlemanly Communist. An intellectual who doesn’t forget to shave. The patron of every new fad in painting and sculping and writing. Mighty condescending about all that ordinary chaps like you and me like, but liable to enthuse about monstrosities, provided that they’re brand-new and for preference foreign. I should think it was a genuine taste, for he has that kind of rootless, marginal mind.’

But, even with all these old familiar themes, they’re easily eclipsed here by the accounts of nature and of rural life: there are beautiful passages about goose-shooting in Norfolk and sheep-shearing in Scotland. There’s also a flashback to a violent confrontation in the remoteness of Rhodesia, which gives us a chance to see Peter Pienaar again, this time at the peak of his powers. It all feels like a man looking back at his life from afar and recalling simpler times.

And consequently, there’s an elegiac tone. It’s not as marked as in the posthumously published Sick Heart River (1941), the last outing for Edward Leithen, but still you get the impression that if Buchan had lived another two decades there still wouldn’t have been another Hannay book.


I realize that no one’s pressing me for an opinion, but were they to do so, I’d rank the Richard Hannay stories in this (descending) order: The Three Hostages, Mr Standfast, The Island of Sheep, Greenmantle, The Thirty-Nine Steps. But it’s all a question of taste – many rate Greenmantle highest, including (I believe) Alfred Hitchcock. And really, they’re all very fine. Old-fashioned, of course, but none the worse for that.

Or are they? Maybe they’re a bit too old-fashioned for some. In 2010 the publishers Wordsworth brought out a single-volume paperback containing all five novels. The blurb on the back described the hero: ‘A shrewd judge of men, he never dehumanizes his enemy, and despite sharing some of the racial prejudices of his day, Richard Hannay is a worthy prototype of espionage fiction.’

Now personally, I think that the ‘racial prejudices of his day’ trigger-warning is patronizing and pointless. But in case you do think it’s necessary… You should be advised that John Buchan was born the son of a Calvinist minister in mid-Victorian Britain in 1875, and died in 1940 when the Empire (with the exception of Eire) was still intact. He was also, for a short while, an MP for the Unionist Party, the Conservatives’ sister-party in Scotland. Oh, and his granddaughter married the Tory politician Ian Stewart, who replaced Shirley Williams as MP for Hitchin and later became a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government. So if you want someone who addresses every item on a modern, leftist agenda, then Buchan may not be quite the writer for you.

There are, for example, anti-Semitic sentiments to be heard. Further, Buchan is not noticeably anti-imperialist. Quite the opposite, in fact, he has a great affection for the Empire. Hannay remembers ‘the old days in East Africa, before the “Happy Valley” and the remittance man and settlers who wanted self-government’, the days when ‘the after-glow of Cecil Rhodes’s spell still lay on Africa, and men could dream dreams’. And he thinks that was a good thing. As did lots of people at the time. Particularly British people.

Buchan’s heroes don’t apologize for Empire; rather, their regret is that the great age of European exploration is dead. ‘Since the beginning of the century we’ve made a clean sweep of the jolly old mysteries that made the world worth living in,’ reflects one character in 1924. ‘There’s little left for a man’s imagination to play with, and our children will grow up in a dull, shrunken world.’ (Though one might note that much the same attitude can be found in The Half-Hearted, published in 1900.)

The heroic age of imperialism may have passed, but at least the British class system remains pretty sound, and will endure so long as people understand that they have a place within it, and an honourable part to play. This is Blenkiron speaking:

‘The British working-man is about the soundest piece of humanity on God’s earth. He grumbles a bit and jibs a bit when he thinks the Government are giving him a crooked deal, but he’s gotten the patience of Job and the sand of a gamecock. And he’s gotten humour too, that tickles me to death.’

What can’t be tolerated are the intellectuals and agitators who fasten on to the working class for their own ends.

Equally suspect are those who do the same in the Empire, stirring up resentment against the British. At one point in Mr Standfast, Hannay is sent undercover to ‘the Garden City of Biggleswick’, where progressive, and possibly subversive, types hold public meetings in a ‘a red-brick building called the Moot Hall’:

I went there regularly and got my mind broadened to cracking point. We had all the stars of the New Movements. We had Doctor Chirk, who lectured on ‘God’, which, as far as I could make out, was a new name he had invented for himself. There was a woman, a terrible woman, who had come back from Russia with what she called a ‘message of healing’. And to my joy, one night there was a great buck nigger who had a lot to say about ‘Africa for the Africans’. I had a few words with him in Sesutu afterwards, and rather spoiled his visit.

It’s a naughty trick, but it does reveal that Hannay at least took the trouble to learn Sotho (as the language is now generally known). Similarly, he admires those Europeans who respect other cultures; Pienaar, he tells us, is esteemed in Mashonaland precisely because ‘he was not the kind of man who damned them all as niggers’.


Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps (1935)

But let’s not end on that note, which can’t help but ring ugly to a modern ear, however it was intended. Rather, let’s look at a comment by Richard Usborne from his somewhat disparaging account of Buchan in Clubland Heroes (1953). Usborne points out that sometimes ‘Hannay’s “sportsmanship” drifted over the edge into a sort of masochism, a desire to be mastered’. His example is Hannay’s ambivalent reaction to the seductive but scary Hilda von Einem in Greenmantle.

‘I hated her instinctively, hated her intensely, but I longed to arouse her interest,’ is Hannay’s immediate response to meeting von Einem. ‘To be valued coldly by those eyes was an offence to my manhood.’ But later on, this exotic woman, who wears ‘spurred boots and breeches’, tells him that she intends to have him hanged, and he finds himself strangely stirred. ‘Never in my life had I been so pleased,’ he reflects. ‘This woman had singled me out above the others as the object of her wrath, and I almost loved her for it.’ He later concludes: ‘Mad and bad she might be, but she was also great.’

It’s a slightly strange reaction, particularly in a man who prides himself on his clean, healthy, outdoor life. (There’s also an echo of Alice Wishart’s ‘unwilling respect’ for Lewis Haystoun and his tales of flogging and hanging in The Half-Hearted.)

One might look as well at that description of the dance club in The Three Hostages, which displays a similar tension between revulsion and attraction. Or indeed at Hannay’s interactions with Medina in the same book. This is his first, luxuriating description of Medina’s face:

It was beautifully cut, every feature regular, and yet there was a touch of ruggedness that saved it from conventionality. I was puzzled about this, till I saw that it came from two things, the hair and the eyes. The hair was a dark brown, brushed in a wave above the forehead, so that the face with its strong fine chin made an almost perfect square. But the eyes were the thing. They were of a startling blue, not the pale blue which is common enough and belongs to our Norse ancestry, but a deep dark blue, like the colour of a sapphire. Indeed if you think of a sapphire with the brilliance of a diamond, you get a pretty fair notion of those eyes. They would have made a plain-headed woman lovely, and in a man’s face, which had not a touch of the feminine, they were startling.

This alluring femininity is, incidentally, also present in many of Hannay’s male friends. Sandy Arbuthnot has ‘a lean, high-boned face and a pair of brown eyes like a pretty girl’s’, and even rugged old Peter Pienaar has ‘pale blue eyes, a face as gentle as a girl’s, and a soft sleepy voice’. From the other side, Mary, you’ll remember, ‘moved with the free grace of an athletic boy’.

Later on in The Three Hostages, when the evil behind the beauty has been realized, there’s a scene in which Hannay must pretend that Medina has successfully hypnotized him, that he is under the man’s control. For reasons that aren’t essential to the plot, Medina feels the need to demonstrate his power to his own mother. He tells Hannay to get down on all-fours and crawl across the room, carrying a paper-knife in his mouth; Hannay does so. Hannay also stands still and accepts his treatment when Medina slaps his cheek and spits in his face. ‘He is well broken,’ comments Medina’s mother approvingly.

The odd thing about the episode is the pride that Hannay seems to take in his performance. The role he has to play, he insists, is insufferable, but he suffers it nonetheless, and with some enthusiasm: ‘I had been annexed by him as a slave, and every drop of free blood in my veins was in revolt; but I was also resolved to be the most docile slave that ever kissed the ground before a tyrant.’

Elsewhere, Hannay resorts to some unexpected imagery: ‘In all my dealings with Medina I was obsessed by the sense of my inferiority to him, that I was like a cab horse compared to an Arab stallion.’

I think Usborne was right: there is indeed a strong streak of masochism in Hannay’s make-up. And the boyish Mary is quite probably wrong when she says that he doesn’t have a ‘subconscious self’.Hannay 1

Actually, that’s not really the note upon which to end, either. Let’s stress instead the real appeal of these books, which is that they are overwhelmingly optimistic and full of the joy of life.

Hannay, Sandy, Pienaar, Blenkiron, even Haraldsen – they’re all hopeful men, they all believe that decency and honour will triumph over negativity, despite living in a world convulsed by conflict. And they never waver. ‘Pessimism, you know, is often a form of vanity,’ as Sandy says.

The rightness of their cause is demonstrated by the fact that their endeavours are accompanied by such outrageous good fortune. ‘I don’t hold with coincidences,’ says Hannay, one of the most coincidence-prone characters in the whole of British fiction. ‘There’s generally some explanations which we’re not clever enough to get at.’

You see, Buchan’s world is a wonderfully just place: not only do success and fortune come to the virtuous, but chance too is part of the natural order of things. The underlying harmony of life, Hannay insists, can be seen in ‘those trivial things which look like accidents but I believe are part of the reasoned government of the universe’. It’s an attractive and beguiling faith, and it’s at the heart of why these books remain such a joyous read.

see also:

2 thoughts on “Imperial fiction: Richard Hannay

    • I’m planning to give Sandy Arbuthnot his own piece at some point, which will centre on The Courts of the Morning.
      Hannay also turns up (albeit briefly) in Sick Heart River. I’m hoping to get round to this as well in due course. Alwyn.


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