Friday, October 30, 2015

The Three Hostages - John Buchan

The Three Hostages - John Buchan

I love the idea of the 1924 book club and thought it would be a fantastic way to get me to pull something unread off the shelf and dive right in. It turned out to not be quite that simple. Simon and Kaggsy helpfully provided a list of some of the years best known/more easily available titles, a few of which I had. Unfortunately the ones I haven't read failed to raise any enthusiasm in me, and the ones I had didn't seem right for re-reading. 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' was looking hopeful but the date turned out to be wrong (damn you for raising false hope Internet). And then I found a copy of 'The Three Hostages'.

My knowledge of Buchan is mostly confined to various adaptations of 'The 39 Steps', I've had good intentions to actually read him for an age, and this was my chance. I've come out of the experience with mixed feelings.

Plot wise you just have to go with Buchan on this one. It doesn't always make a lot of sense and a lot of things are glossed over, but it's an effective thriller and I didn't mind that. There are some really exciting set pieces - even the last chapter which is mostly descriptions of mountaineering kept me gripped as a life and death struggle unfolded on a Scottish hillside.

Briefly, 3 people have been kidnapped, the daughter of a Rothschild style banker, the young son of a respected soldier, and the heir to a dukedom. They are to be leverage if some sort of international plot goes wrong (details never revealed but there are hints that Ireland is significant). Richard Hannay's help is sought in foiling these dastardly scoundrels, he is at first reluctant and then gets stuck in. Thanks to the help of his wife and various friends the forces of British decency prevail, but only just. 

What I learnt about 1924 is how much resentment and distrust was felt towards the Irish, how ingrained racism was (not a huge surprise), how rampant snobbery and class distinctions still were, how emancipated Lady Hannay is (more surprising), a growing sympathy for Germany after the treaty of Versailles, and a deeply ingrained anti-semitism. 

It's an interesting snapshot of attitudes at a specific point in time and is as effective a way as any of understanding what history has coming next. The attitude towards the Irish is particularly interesting, at first I assumed the villain was going to have his eye on, or be from, some Ruritanian style Balkan state, but he's Irish, at least on his mothers side. Celtic rather than Anglo Saxon, undoubtedly brilliant but also subtle, devious, mad, and without the moral code a proper Englishman should possess. Seeing this prejudice in print is new to me - the prejudice is not - and it's illuminating. 

Reading this primarily because of the year it was published in, and thinking about what it could tell me about that year, was fun. Buchan knows how to tell a story, Hannay, jingoistic cliches and all is an entertaining character, and the concluding chapters are particularly good. It should come with a bit of a health warning though - there are attitudes which are fairly unpalatable to this modern reader and without treating it in part as a historical document I'm not sure I'd recommend it. 


  1. Great stuff! So glad you found something to read for 1924! Buchan is a good read, but you just have to accept and put aside the prejudices of the time and be glad our views have moved on.... Thanks for joining in!


  2. It was a decent page turner and there are bits which were brilliant - the big showdown between the villain and Mary Hannay is a proper goosebump scene. It's certainly not put me off reading more Buchan, but though I'm not generally very squeamish about old fashioned attitudes he doesn't hold back here. Sometimes it's outrageous enough to be funny, and it's certainly a useful indicator of acceptable contemporary prejudices in 1924. I'm really pleased I read it, and took part in such a great reading group idea. I'm very hopeful you'll do more of them...

  3. I've yet to read Buchand as I'd like to read the Hannay novels in sequence. Just finished "Cousin Harriet" by Susan Tweedsmuir who was Buchan's wife. Thoroughly enjoyed it. She has an interesting resume if you check our her wikipedia entry. Anti-semitism was rife amongst British authors it seems, I've found it in George Bernard Shaw, Vita Sackville-West, Somerset Maugham, Cecil Day Lewis and I'm sure there are many more.
    Tweedsmuir manages to only have one reference to one character's house being mortgaged up to the hilt due to gambling debts and being "in the hands of the jews". It's jarring when you come across these attitudes yet it's surely tied in with the British class structure, colonial attitudes and general racist beliefs. Hard to fathom why supposedly intelligent authors subcribed to this nonsense though.

  4. I have that and will read it. I think the Hannay books would be great to read in sequence, this one was a thrilling ride at least. If nothing else it will provide a fascinating insight into popular prejudices of the day! I'm normally not overly sensitive about this sort of thing, but this one did jar at times, not so much that it should put anybody else off though.