Here's one from a while back. I am referring to Greenmantle
I'm starting Mr. Standfast
by John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps
. It features the same protagonist, Richard Hannay. I'm not at all sure I'll finish it, but we'll see. I did read The Thirty-Nine Steps
(which was weird). I'm quite bemused by a little bit of... high-quality tradecraft. In one chapter, Hannay is told by a woman who is obviously very important,
From a little gold satchel she selected a tiny box, and opening it extracted a thing like a purple wafer with a white St Andrew's Cross on it. 'What kind of watch have you? Ah, a hunter. Paste that inside the lid. Some day you may be called on to show it ...
A few chapters later, the day arrives:
He extricated from his trousers pocket an ancient silver watch, and regarded it with disfavour. 'The dashed thing has stoppit. What do ye make the time, Mr Brand?'
He proceeded to prise open the lid of his watch with the knife he had used to cut his tobacco, and, as he examined the works, he turned the back of the case towards me. On the inside I saw pasted Mary Lamington's purple-and-white wafer.
I held my watch so that he could see the same token. His keen eyes, raised for a second, noted it, and he shut his own with a snap and returned it to his pocket. His manner lost its wariness and became almost genial.
Yeah, right. What better way can two secret agents recognize each other? Can you imagine, testing acquaintances by finding an excuse to pry your watch open and turn it at an awkward angle so that they can see that there is "a thing like a purple wafer with a white St Andrew's Cross" pasted inside?
And if the other person is not a secret agent and doesn't have a matching purple wafer with a white St. Andrew's Cross pasted inside their watch, what is the other person going to think?
"Oh, look at that purple wafer with a white St. Andrew's Cross pasted inside the lid of your watch. Very nice. Mine has an green wafer with a red dragon on it, would you like to see it?"
I am just embarking on Peter Hopkirk's Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire
. In his introduction Hopkirk compares this book to his The Great Game
. He says just as that book told the real-life background for Kipling's Kim, this book expands on the real-life background for Buchan's Greenmantle
. Kirkpatrick claims there is much real-life in Greenmantle
and that Buchan was involved in British Intelligence in the time-period.
I want to comment on the tradecraft mentioned by Nisiprius above. The idea of having a locket with a secret sign was used in Kim
. It's use did not come across as being awkward even though it involved the additional step of a little back and forth conversation that one could ease oneself into, a bit more than "the ship sails at midnight" passphrase. I thought it interesting that a phrase of that conversation had to be spoken with a particular inflection, a subtle pause. Those expected to use this method of identification were highly skilled at disguises and role playing. I think the idea was to make it difficult for someone to fake it. This is similar to the modern security concept for identification requiring three things: something you have (distinctive amulet), something you know (passphrase) and something you are (skilled actor to get the inflection right and natural). Kipling knew a thing or two!
I am anticipating a rewarding journey and will also likely re-read Greenmantle
with my new-found insights. I know The Great Game
helped give me a better feel for Kim.
outsold Thirty Nine Steps
before Hitchcock made his movie.
P.P.S. Nisi, did you ever finish Mr. Standfast
Listen very carefully. I shall say this only once.