The reason for choosing this book by John Buchan as a lunchtime read is because it is a slim volume that can be consumed easily in sections over lunch. The unforeseen problem is that it is so addictive that it is almost impossible to put it down and turn back to the screen to get on with your work.
The story focuses on Richard Hannay a mining engineer who has returned to London after an absence of some years and is on the brink of heading to South Africa to avoid the boredom when he comes across a strange man called Scudder. The stranger outlines a plan to destabilise Europe and bring on war by murdering the Greek leader and just as it seems like he might live to solve the mystery he is killed and Hannay, armed with Scudder’s black notebook, is left to solve the crime and stop the Germans from getting away with the secrets – something he manages to do.
Is it well written?
It is self consciously the style of a dime thriller and the pace of the book is amazing and there is not much detailed description around the central issue of Hannay surviving and being around to foil the Black Stone secret organisation. Even if you don’t like thrillers the feature to admire here is the pace, which never flags over the course of the book. There also has to be a mention of the plot because it is not always clear what will happen next and that is also a good reason for sticking with it.
Should it be read?
It is not only a real page turner before Dan Brown even discovered he wanted to write one, but also paints a picture of pre-war innocence in 1913 London that is almost tangible as the old boys network and the Empire are still in full swing. Read it for pleasure but don’t expect to be reading it for too long because this will keep you going until the very end.
Version read – Penguin Classics paperback
The brisk pace and chapter cliff-hangers continue to come thick and fast and this is building into a real climax but there’s only so much you can do in one lunchtime sadly..
Highlights from chapters seven, eight, nine and ten
* Hannay makes his way back to the road mender’s house to get his clothes and Scudder’s notebook but because he has been out all night in the damp he develops a fever and stays there being nursed back to health for ten days
* The liberal candidate he spent time with has contacted his uncle in the foreign office and Hannay comes clean about all he knows and in return is told that he is no longer a suspect for the murder
* Together they go through the notebook but the Foreign Office expert dismisses the thought that anyone would want to kill the Greek leader but then he is interrupted for a phone call…
“He returned in five minutes with a whitish face. ‘I apologise to the shade of Scudder,’ he said. “Karolides was shot dead this evening at a few minutes after seven’.”
* Hannay is taken into the confidence of Sir Walter the Foreign Office official and told that an agent is coming from France and that the enemies of the state will do anything to get at him
* Back in London Scotland Yard clear his name and he heads to the Savoy to lie low for the night but he gets this yearning to be involved in the action and heads back to Sir Walter’s House
* A conference is in progress and the First Sea Lord comes in and then leaves except that Hannay seems to understand that it was an impostor and breaks into the conference and tells the remaining men
* After discovering their meeting was infiltrated the assembled company are horrified and expect the spy to head stray back to his masters with all the secrets but Hannay remembers the clue to the 39 steps and the tide
* They set off to the Admirality to check tide times and then drag in an old coastguard and they narrow down the location to the Kent coast and head off to try and stop the spies from leaving the country
* They converge on the location and work out that one villa has 39 steps to the sea but the house contains an old stockbroker and so Hannay is doubtful that he has the right place even after a boat moors out to sea containing a German trying to pretend to be English
* Hannay decides that the only course of action is to act as if he is totally confident of his plan and face the music if he is wrong because the stakes are too high to risk doing otherwise and he remembers a friend telling him that the beest form of disguise is ‘atmosphere’ which the men in the villa seem to have created perfectly
* He walks into the house and faces the three men who act so well they make him feel it has all been a mistake but then he recognises them and confronts them but as he blows his whistle one of the men escapes and the old man boasts that he has got away but then Hannay finishes the scene off with a great line:
“‘I hope Franz will bear his triumph well, I ought to tell you that the Ariadne [their escape boat] for the last hour has been in our hands.'”
Of course war breaks out but Hannay stopped some secrets from being used. What a great read. I’ll post a review in the next couple of days.
It’s hard just to read this during my lunch break because it is a real page turner and the temptation is the carry on but work beckons.
Highlights from chapters five and six
* After having taken the liberal candidate into his confidence Hannay sets off on a bike to set out for the farmlands where he intends to lie low being undetected but before he has got very far he is spotted by a plane and then men start beating the glen to discover him
* A stroke of good luck comes in the guise of a roadworker who willingly lets him spend the day doing his jobs and then three men do stop and interrogate him but leave satisfied
* Just as he is wondering how he will escape an acquaintance from London appears and Hannay gets him to hand over his car and he drives down through the valley and through the cordon of watchers
* He sleeps rough but the acquaintance from London has told the police and they have started to comb the hill looking for him so he has to keep dodging them and finally runs into an old house that respects a museum
* The man in the museum seems to know him and it turns out Hannay has walked into a trap but tries to act his way out of it but fails and is put into the storeroom while the leader goes out to get the men who interrogated him as a road mender
* In the storeroom he is kept in he discovers a locked cupboard and inside is some explosives which he recognises from his time as a mining engineer and he uses this the blow the wall down and makes good his escape after discovering a hidden aerodrome
This thriller is already gripping just a couple of chapters in and the story continues to develop at a rapid pace
Highlights from chapters three and four
* Hannay gets up to Scotland and as he leaves the small station and heads over the glen his spirits soar but they come back down with a bump when he heads back to go in a circle and reads about the murder in the paper and then sees the Police interviewing the stationmaster and his son t the small station
* As the train slows down he decides to jump out but the barking of a dog, the bleating of the herd and the belief that he has committed suicide means that it is a very public escape
* He finds an aspiring author who is running a very empty inn and offers him a secret hiding place away from the police but two strangers find him and although Hannay, who has broken the code of Scudder’s notebook. gives them a decoy note he knows they will return
* He gets the inn keeper to organise the police to come at the same time as the sinister men return and as they go up to the inn to be arrested Hannay jumps out of the window and steals their car
* He makes a mistake by taking the car because he is easily identifiable and as he pulls into a town the policeman tries to stop him and he has to speed away over the glens
* The next problem is that a plane is scrambled and as he searches for trees to hide in he drives up a private road and has to swerve to avoid an oncoming car and his car slips down into a brook and is destroyed
* The owner of the other car takes him home and is full of apologies and turns out to be a liberal candidate having to deliver a speech that night and asks Hannay if he is a free trader and could speak with him about the dangers of protectionism and because he is in a fix Hannay agrees
Highlights from chapter two
* Hannay discovers Scudder is dead and that his flat has been ransacked, presumably as the murderers were searching for his bloack pocket book where Scudder had made notes
* After thinking about it Hannay comes up with a plan to carry on Scudder’s mission and picks on Galloway as a remote part of Scotland where he can hide for the twenty days until the Greek leader comes to London
* Dressing and filling his pipe he touches the black mnotebook in the bottom of his tobbacco jar and fools the lookouts borrowing the milkman’s chat and apron and then runs and gets on the train from Euston going up to Scotland
Is he safe? More tomorrow…
There is a little dedication at the start, where John Buchan tells a friend that he had read through all of his dime novels so decided to write one himself and the tension in this thriller is introduced very quickly.
Highlights from chapter one
* Richard Hannay has returned to England after years of absence and is bored with London and as he walks back to his flat in central London he vows that unless something happens then he will leave and get on a boat for South Africa
* As he enters his flat a man from upstairs asks him to shelter him and explains that he has unconvered a conspiracy to set Germany against Russia and the only problem is that the Greek leader Karolides is honest and stopping the scheme so he will be assasinated when he comes to London on a visit in a month’s time
* He leaves the man in his flat and when he returns the visitor Scudder tells him about the plan to kill Karolides in more detail and seems to be very nervous – sure enough the next evening as Hannay comes in the lights are off and his guest has been knifed through the heart
More lunchtime tomorrow…