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“It is notable,” wrote John Keegan, that dean of modern military historians, “that very few of even the most celebrated spy stories actually establish a connection between the spy’s activities and the purpose for which he presumably risks his life in the field. In Greenmantle, for example, John Buchan’s wonderful romance of intelligence work in Turkey during the First World War, it becomes impossible for the reader to discern at the end what exactly Sandy, as Greenmantle, has done.”
Keegan is right, of course. And the reverse can be true, too. In the case of The Powerhouse, Buchan’s equally wonderful romance of dark international doings, we are certain our hero has foiled the dastardly plot of an organization that goes by the trade name, “The Powerhouse”. But exactly what that organization’s aims and objects were are never made clear. There is a reference to “kicking the props” out from under civilization, but which props are getting the boot is not specified.
And yet all that hasn’t mattered to millions of readers for coming up on a century now. I suspect it didn’t trouble Keegan’s enjoyment. It certainly didn’t get in the way of mine; there is too much here to enjoy.
First, there’s the plot. In a sort of “Rear Window” twist, this web of international intrigue is torn apart by a hero who never leaves England; indeed, all of the tearing takes place in London. Again, like Jimmy Stewart—this time in “The Man Who Knew Too Much”—our hero is not a spy by profession; he’s drawn into the action by a series of coincidences, his own innate curiosity and concern for a friend. Added goose: thanks to Buchan’s deft handling, those coincidences appear perfectly natural.
Next, there’s the atmosphere of deep leather club chairs, oak paneled libraries, school nicknames and state secrets. And beyond all that lies the mental atmosphere of which those outward things are merely signs. Yeah, I know, I know: imperialism is icky. But confidence in one’s cause and country, an abiding trust in the basic rightness of your civilization, are attitudes that, as a “post-Viet Nam”, “post-post-modern” American I’ve always wondered what it was like to possess. Sure, I know I’d never be let into the Old Boys’ colleges or clubs. But those feelings of cultural confidence were shared fully by millions of ordinary pre-First World War Englishmen, too. Heck, even the Socialist MP in the piece signs on eagerly to help our hero. It’s nice to take a vacation in that kind of cultural unity, however idealized.
Finally there’s the writing and reading, both of which are simply superb. Buchan is a supreme yarn-spinner, blending by turns the serious and suspenseful with the humorous or thoughtful. Like Ian Fleming, he knew how to include enough authentic everyday detail to make the scenes of action and suspense authentic, too. Our reader Peter Joyce encompasses every character fully; he knows when to be arch, how to lend an edge of suspense to his voice without slopping over into melodrama, how to make a character sound like he’s groping for words or facing a dubious choice. He’s not so much reading as acting, and he’s great at both.
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