Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mr Standfast

Mr Standfast, published in 1919, was the third of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay espionage novels.

The success of The Thirty-Nine Steps had taken Buchan by surprise. Buchan was himself an interesting character who wrote some great weird fiction as well as works of serious history. He was created Baron Tweedsmuir in 1935 and ended up as Governor-General of Canada.

Richard Hannay is commanding an infantry brigade on the Western Front when he finds himself once again, somewhat against his will, assigned to counter-espionage duties. This time he must go undercover as a pacifist. Pacifist and anti-war activists in Britain are being used by the Germans to undermine the Allied war effort and Hannay must track down the master spy behind this plot.

Hannay finds that pacifists are not quite what he expected. Some he instinctively dislikes while for others he gradually learns to feel a grudging respect. He also has another even bigger surprise. The rather crusty 40-year-old brigadier finds himself falling madly in love with the 19-year-old Mary Lamington. Mary is ravishingly beautiful and exceptionally intelligent. She is also a formidable secret agent.

Hannay’s hunt for the German spymaster takes him to Scotland and later to Switzerland, and it proves to be a most frustrating hunt indeed. Hannay’s task is complicated by his determination to ensure that no harm comes to his new lady love, although in truth Mary is capable of looking after herself fairly well. There are many clever plot twists, exciting escapes from imminent death, and there’s a great deal of entertainment to be had within the pages of this book.

Some reviewers will lead you to believe that Buchan’s High Tory political beliefs and his enthusiasm for British imperialism combined with the common attitudes of the day on the subjects of women and foreigners make his books difficult for modern readers to appreciate. Personally I think this is nonsense. Buchan was a complex and intelligent man and his views are by no means simplistic or rigid.

He was also a masterful story teller and the Hannay novels are essential reading for anyone with a love for spy fiction.

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