My contribution to the Past Offences monthly classic challenge. The publications of one hundred years ago offered slim pickings for my sensibilities and from those I opted for the book which arguably introduced the world to the innocent-man-in-peril thriller.
I’ve twice now made the same error when selecting a book for this challenge: choosing what to read based on my knowledge of an adaptation. I never got around to writing about my #1952Book – David Dodge’s TO CATCH A THIEF – but if I had done I suspect I could have copied large swathes of my critique for this post. In both instances the film adaptations which came afterwards are much better stories and in both cases I’d wager the source material would long ago have faded into obscurity if not for the superiority of Alfred Hitchcok’s narrative skills.
If you have seen either of the early film adaptations but never read the book there’s a lot you wouldn’t recognise (the 1978 adaptation is reportedly more faithful than those from 1935, 1959 or 2008 though I can’t remember it well enough to make the claim on my own) so let me help you out. It is 1914. Pre-war. Richard Hannay is in England after years of life as a mining engineer in Rhodesia. He’s bored (because he doesn’t have a chap to run about with). He returns home one night to find an American on his doorstep. The man, Scudder, has faked his own death and claims to know of a plot to assassinate the Greek Premier during his imminent visit to London (heaven knows why he selected Hannay – a total stranger – alone in all the world to share this apparently vital piece of information with). The aforementioned Scudder is murdered a few days later. Rather than contacting any kind of authority Hannay disguises himself as a milkman to escape the prying eyes of whoever murdered Scudder and the police and catches a train to Scotland where he proposes to hide out until nearer the due date of the assassination and then warn ‘one of the government people’ of the threat to the Greek politician. This is as believable as the plot gets. Ridiculousness piles upon absurd coincidence for the remainder of this brief tale (it clocks in at under 4 hours in the audio version I listened to or under 100 pages in the Project Gutenberg download I skimmed).
I suppose I’m being a little harsh in that the preposterous story might not have seemed quite so outlandish a hundred years ago but when a book has nothing else – no character development, no thought-provoking exploration of themes – then the quality (or lack thereof) of the plot will get all the attention. Though perhaps I’ll allow a digression to mention the quite confronting casual bigotry on display. I know we have to make allowances for the writing being of its time. But still: ugh.
Getting back to the story. I now know that it was originally published as a series of instalments in a magazine which makes a lot of sense as every chapter finishes with an absurd cliffhanger. I suppose that kept people returning to buy the next issue but it makes for a somewhat alarmingly paced tale when all strung together. There are repeated sequences of Hannay meeting the right person to help him escape his current predicament (however unlikely their appearance at that moment might be), the donning of a disguise, some running and hiding (usually in fields) and an in-the-nick-of-time escape. In between, our hero proves most worthy of the sobriquet for there is little he cannot turn his hand to (code-breaking, public speaking, setting explosives and generally outwitting all manner of gents) (and unlike all the films the novel is populated almost entirely by gents though I do recall a woman offering shelter and cheese at one point). I know it is meant to be suspenseful but there is never a single moment’s doubt that Hannay will succeed and all without incurring any kind of permanent injury (though how he managed to pick up a very convenient case of Malaria in the middle of Scotland is, I suppose, something of a mystery).
The book is a forgettable romp. Its language and attitude are dated and its substance is…well…almost non existent. And after so much adventure the ending is a whimper rather than a bang which is something of a disappointment. But it’s enjoyable enough as an example of the British “Tally Ho Chaps” sensibility in action (and in the early days of the war I’m sure this would have been appreciated) and perhaps worth the short time reading it occupies to understand the origins of the now well-worn trope of an innocent man on the run.