Heroes of spy fiction – some comments on Buchan

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Cawelti and Rosenberg write:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the secret agent adventure had begun to assume a definite shape in the work of writers like Kipling, Stevenson, and Conrad. A number of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories came close to being accounts of counterespionage activity, and on the eve of World War I, in ‘His Last Bow,’ Holmes came out of retirement in order to foil the plots of a German agent. But it was the generation which came of age in the early twentieth century that made the spy story a major literary archetype by producing masses of formulaic spy adventures (e.g., Rohmer’s Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, LeQueux’s Secret Service, Wallace’s Four Just men) as well as a number of more complex fictions involving espionage as a theme (e.g., Childer’s Riddle of the Sands, Kipling’s Kim, and Conrad’s Secret Agent). The Richard Hannay stories of John Buchan span the distance between the popular spy adventure and the novel of espionage. Like the popular stories, Buchan’s tales are deeply romantic; his hero is a gentleman amateur, definitely one of that breed later labeled “clubland [-p.80] heroes.” His enemies are supervillains who represent the threat of non-British races and cultures to the English hegemony. Their complex criminal organizations, like the international criminal syndicate of Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, threaten the very heart of the homeland. With the help of a few other gentleman friends, however Buchan’s dauntless hero is invariably able to uncover and defeat the supervillain’s plots, saving the empire for the time being. Though his hero antagonists sometimes lapse into the manichean simplicities of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchy and Sir Dennis Nayland Smyth, Buchan’s moral earnestness, his sense of humor, and his concern for literary values make his Hannay stories the very model of the early twentieth-century spy story.” (pp.79-80)

Buchan, more than any other writer, assembled the formula for the modern secret agent story.” (p.80)

If Richard Hannay were only a typical clubland hero defending British social tradition with the help of higher powers, Buchan’s work would doubtless have faded into the oblivion that has swallowed up most of his contemporaries and followers like Dornford Yates and Sapper. However, Buchan also responded in his fantasies to a more contemporary sense of ambivalence about the social and religious tradition. While he worked to resolve this ambivalence through characters like Sandy Arbuthnot, who remains a cool British aristocrat despite his total involvement in Eastern ways of life, the fascination with the new forces unleashed in the world remains an important undercurrent of Buchan’s fantasy. Though his works of adventure are optimistic on the surface and he imagines a revitalized Christian social tradition able to overcome the threats of the twentieth century, his stories also reflect on a deeper level a sense of the critical failure of modern civilization and a yearning for a more glorious, simpler, and more mystical way of life. On this level, he still speaks to some of the major currents in the fantasy life of men in the twentieth century. The modern spy story, even in the cynical and despairing [-p.100] intrigues of John le Carré and Len Deighton, has come to express this kind of feeling still more strongly. Thus Buchan was instrumental in giving both a model of form and an inner spirit to the story of espionage, giving it through his vision of the world a capacity to express in terms of contemporary international politics and intrigue the yearning for a lost world of fullness and heroism.” (pp.99-100)

Buchan’s heroes were very much in control of their destinies, so it seemed, for despite the danger that continually threatened him, Hannay always extricated himself with relative [-p.114] ease: with a cunning disguise, the lucky discovery of an explosive carelessly stored in the barn in which he was imprisoned, that glib and oily art which enabled him to pass himself off as a political orator with almost no preparation. And his supreme confidence in himself is shared by those around him, even staff officers of the admiralty, who incredibly permit Hannay to take command of the operation to crush the Black Stone. Ambler’s and Greene’s early heroes are rather ordinary, far less than heroic amateurs, undistinguished people caught up in intrigues in which they need professional help either from the police or from friendly agents. And they are more believable for that.” (pp.113-114)

Those characters who seem most real to us, who seem to have lives quite independent of their fictional plots, have been invested with complexities and ambiguities that lift them out of the formulaic plots where we found them. Thus does the writer of formula fiction charge his characters with life.” (p.114)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

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