Richard Hannay is a fictional character created by the Scottish author John Buchan. He features in five of Buchan's 'shockers'1, written over a period from 1915 to 1936.
The five novels - The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep - trace Richard Hannay's life from his first enounter with espionage and war up until his later life as a man of means and title.
The Early Years
Richard Hannay's early life was one of colonial adventure. Born in Scotland around 1877, Hannay moved with his father out to the colony of South Africa at the age of six. He became a roaming mining engineer in South Africa, Rhodesia2 and Damaraland3, but also spent some time in the British forces during the Matabele conflict - he was decorated for his role in one of the battles.
At some point, Hannay diversified into hunting, often teaming up with a Boer friend of his by the name of Peter Pienaar. They both fought in the Boer War on the British side (with Peter becoming an expert scout and sniper). It was due to Pienaar that Hannay developed his knack for the bare-faced bluff as a way for him to get out of trouble, a skill which would serve him in good stead in his later adventures.
Framed for Murder (The Thirty-Nine Steps)
I was in the soup - that was pretty clear. Any shadow of a doubt I might have had about the truth of Scudder's tale was now gone. The proof of it was lying under the table-cloth. The men who knew that he knew what he knew had found him, and had taken the best way to make certain of his silence. Yes; but he had been in my rooms four days, and his enemies must have reckoned that he had confided in me. So I would be the next to go. It might be that very night, or next day, or the day after, but my number was up all right.
At the relatively advanced age (for prospective spies) of thirty-seven, Hannay has the secret life of pre-First World War espionage thrust upon him in 1914 when a strange (and moderately anti-semitic) man named Scudder holes up in his apartment and confides his knowledge of a forthcoming assassination attempt on the Greek Premier, a man named Karolides. Hannay is unsure whether to believe him until Scudder is knifed in the back by an unknown assailant while he (Hannay) is out.
Armed only with Scudder's coded notebook and the certainty that Scudder was killed for what he knew, Hannay sets out to evade the sinister agents responsible for the plot against Karolides as well as the authorities (who suspect him of the murder).
During the course of this pursuit Hannay adopts numerous disguises cobbled together from passers-by, survives a bout of his occasionally recurrent malaria, and manages to decode Scudder's notebook to learn the true fiendish nature of the organisation called the Black Stone and their role in the coming war.
Secret Agent to the East (Greenmantle)
As soon as I began to think I saw the desperate business I was in for. Here was I, with nothing except what I stood up in - including a coat and cap that weren't mine - alone in mid-winter in the heart of South Germany... To make things worse my job was not to escape - though that would have been hard enough - but to get to Constantinople, more than a thousand miles off, and I reckoned I couldn't get there as a tramp. I had to be sent there, and now I had flung away my chance. If I had been a Catholic I would have said a prayer to St Teresa, for she would have understood my troubles.
Hannay's efforts to thwart the Black Stone, while pivotal, didn't alter the outbreak of the First World War. After enlisting, and receiving the rank of Major due to his previous war experience, Hannay experienced some bloody trench warfare before being invalided out of the Loos offensive. Here he was recruited by Sir Walter Bullivant at the Foreign Office for a top-secret mission to discover and disrupt Germany's plans to incite a holy war in the Middle East - a holy war that would be directed towards the defeat of Russia, Britain's Eastern ally. The only clues in their possession come from three scribbled messages on a piece of paper written by a (now dead) spy.
Luckily for Hannay, this time he had the help of some steadfast friends - Sandy Arbuthnot, the son of a Baron who could pass for an Arab anywhere in the Middle East; John S Blenkiron, an American 'nootral' who played Patience and complained bitterly of his dyspepsia4; and Hannay's friend from Africa, Peter Pienaar.
By varying methods, the band of adventurers trekked through enemy Germany through to Constantinople5, with Hannay's path taking him past the fearsome Colonel von Stumm. In Constantinople the band meet up with the enigmatic Frau von Einem, who it seemed, was the key to finding and destroying the threat of Greenmantle, and of the group surviving to reach friendly territory once again.
A Pilgrim's Progress (Mr Standfast)
There was a dull sound like the popping of the corks of flat soda-water bottles. There was a humming, too, from very far up in the skies. People in the street were either staring at the heavens or running wildly for shelter. A motor-bus in front of me emptied its contents in a twinkling; a taxi pulled up with a jar and the driver and fare dived into a second-hand bookshop. It took me a moment or two to realise the meaning of it all, and I had scarcely done this when I got a very practical proof. A hundred yards away a bomb fell on a street island, shivering every window-pane in a wide radius, and sending splinters of stone flying about my head. I did what I had done a hundred times before at the Front, and dropped flat on my face.
After the Greenmantle affair, Hannay returned to the Western Front, where he continued to earn promotion. Now a Brigadier, he once again receives a call from Walter Bullivant and Blenkiron who, this time, want Hannay for a dangerous game of counter-espionage.
Hannay is sent to a community of conscientious objectors6 with the aim of ferreting out a devious German spy. Little did Bullivant or Hannay realise that this undercover work would lead Hannay into the highlands of Scotland (followed closely by the local constabulary), a confrontation in a packed London Underground station, and a climactic return to Switzerland and the Western Front for a final showdown with the man who calls himself Moxton Ivery.
It is during this adventure that Hannay finally finds love, in the form of an 18-year old English girl by the name of Mary Lamington. Mary is wise beyond her years, and despite their 20-year age gap they are drawn to each other as friends and lovers.
In parallel with Hannay's adventures, mention must be made of Peter Pienaar, who had joined the Royal Flying Corps after the conclusion of Greenmantle. After rapidly becoming an ace, he is shot down and seriously injured in the leg by the famed German pilot Lensch, and throughout much of the novel only appears via his correspondence with Hannay throughout his subsequent stay in a German prison camp. His philosophical musings on the Pilgrim's Progress7 provide Hannay with comfort and inspiration in his times of danger.
After being repatriated to Switzerland, Pienaar rejoins Hannay and, in the climax to the novel, he is able, despite his disability, to strike one more telling and tragic blow for the Allies.
Married With Children (The Three Hostages)
But what was my next step to be? The position was reversed. [He] was above me with a rifle, and my own weapon was useless. He must find out the road I had taken and would be after me like a flame . . . I was no good going down the glen; in the open ground he would get the chance of twenty shots. It was no good sticking to the spur or the adjacent ridge, for the cover was bad. I could not hide for long in the corrie . . . Then I looked towards the Pinnacle Ridge and considered that, once I got into those dark couloirs, I might be safe. The Psalmist had turned to the hills for his help -- I had better look to the rocks.
After the war and newly knighted, Sir Richard Hannay marries Mary Lamington and settles down at Fosse Manor. They soon have a son, Peter John, and are content. Unfortunately for Hannay, this only lasts until the fateful day on which he has three separate visitors, telling tales of three children held hostage by an unknown but incredibly crafty enemy.
Hannay's attempts to unlock the mystery of a piece of poetry that seems to link all three kidnappings lead him to a man named Dominick Medina, a distinguished and popular Member of Parliament. Enlisting the help of his old friend Sandy Arbuthnot, Hannay asks Medina's aid but finds he gets more than he bargains for.
This time Hannay uncovers a plot involving hypnotism and black arts that approach the realms of the supernatural, as well as more mundane evils such as blackmail, profiteering and political gain. It is also a plot that, before its end, will draw his wife and son into its clutches and force a bloody conclusion.
Old Promises (The Island of Sheep)
A kind of dusk had fallen owing to the cloud-wrack drifting up with the east wind, and the prospect from my roof-top was only of leaden skies and a black, fretful sea. The terrace was empty, but I could see what was happening beyond it, and I watched it with the fascinated eyes of a spectator at a cinema, held by what I saw, but subconsciously aware of the artifice of it all. My mind simply refused to take this mad world into which I had strayed as an actual thing, though my reason told me that it was a grim enough reality. I caught a glimpse of one figure after another among the stunted shrubberies and sunk plots which lay north and east of the hermit's cell. Then an exclamation from Sandy called my attention to the cell itself. There was a man on its roof pouring something out of a bucket. "Petrol," Sandy whispered. "I guessed right. They'll burn him out."
Having returned once again to a quiet life at Fosse Manor, Hannay's life is shaken a final time when the son of Marius Haraldsen, an old acquaintance from Africa, asks for his help in finishing a feud that goes back thirty years to a hilltop in Rhodesia.
Accompanied by Lombard, another of his friends from Africa, and again by Sandy Arbuthnot, Hannay sets out to protect the family of one of his oldest friends - a trip that will take him from the England he knows to the Norlands8, the Island of Sheep of the title.
Who is Jacques d'Ingraville? Why is he so set on the destruction of the Haraldsens? And can Hannay and his disparate group of friends stave off the desperadoes' attempts on their lives?
Hannay, Richard Hannay
The Island of Sheep was Buchan's last Hannay novel, and indeed Buchan's penultimate published work before he died. Hannay's work wasn't over, though - The Thirty-Nine Steps has been adapted three times for film. The films do, however, differ in many important respects from Buchan's version. For instance, in Hitchcock's version of the story, the changes to this chapter of Hannay's life include the nature of the enemy's plot, the name of the organisation, Hannay's nationality - in the film he is a Canadian - and the addition of a love interest.
Buchan's shockers are also sometimes considered to be an early prototype for the literary heroes of the 1950's and 1960's - the most famous of which was one Bond, James Bond.
- The John Buchan Society
- A fascinating New Criterion essay on Buchan and the Hannay novels
- Buchanalia - A celebration (of sorts) of Buchan's prose