RogerBW's Blog

The Courts of the Morning, John Buchan 06 March 2018

1929 thriller, inter-war thud-and-blunder. In South America, Sandy Arbuthnot and Archie Roylance find themselves involved in fomenting a revolution, but not in the usual way.

This is sometimes regarded as one of the Richard Hannay books, but his involvement is limited to a prologue getting some of the actors in place. The country of Olifa, on the western coast of South America and perhaps very loosely cognate with Peru, is in an odd position: it has peace and prosperity, but it all seems to stem from the copper mines of the Gran Seco, which are under autocratic rule by a mysterious outsider known as Castor. Clearly he's up to something, but even getting to the place to take a look is a challenge when he controls not only railway access but the government too.

The solution, as it turns out, is to start a revolution in the name of Castor, and to kidnap him so that he can't disavow it; and then to work on "saving his soul" while trying to win the guerrilla war against the government forces (with irregular mounted infantry against a modern semi-mechanised army).

This is an oddly schizophrenic book. There's a certain amount of the stalks over rough ground where Buchan is at his best (particularly when Archie's wife Janet is escaping from some of Castor's bodyguard); there's also alternate-world military history, both large scale (troop movements and battles) and small (an account of an attack up supposedly un-climbable cliffs would be at home in a book about commando raids in the Second World War). Aircraft are important, though largely for scouting and transport. Frequent reference to the maps will be necessary if one wishes to keep track of what's going on where. And there's the overall cunning plan, which is to get Castor to care about something, rather than leave him doing things simply because he can.

This leaves the pace frankly glacial; the military history would perhaps have gone over better without the occasional exciting moments, and certainly vice versa. There's remarkably little of Sandy, who is off having excitement away from the narrative's eye; Archie and Janet are the closest we get to viewpoint characters. There's a romance, hinted at earlier but actually conducted entirely within the space of the short epilogue when one of the principals isn't even present.

It's a story of Great White Saviours, of course: while there are good Olifans who are more than merely cannon-fodder, there's no suggestion that they could have brought the thing off without help from the Good Guys. All the natives ("Indians") are noble and competent, and all the minions of Castor are foreign and/or misshapen (which comes to the same thing really).

It's… well, all right, I suppose. It certainly doesn't spur me to go on and read more Buchan. Which is odd, because the next year's Castle Gay (which I've previously reviewed) is very much better.

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  1. Posted by chris at 11:18am on 06 March 2018

    The situation is complicated, and the villainy made more desperate, by the hard core Black Hats all being mysteriously addicted to an Unknown Drug which for some reason they are unable to get hold of for themselves after the Big Boss is gone -- but the lack of which for months does not incapacitate them in the slightest as far as one can tell, except for interfering with their digestions so that they become a bit cadaverous.

    Quite why somebody who wants a country efficiently run has recruited villainous (but intelligent) men from all over the globe and then fed them dope is not made terribly clear, but I think it is a major flaw in the book. I know why the author did it; he needs them to be unremittingly evil at the end rather than simply say "sod this for a game of soldiers" and go elsewhere, and unless they were tied to the supply of the drug which they don't have -- eh? --there would be no need for them to be so; but I cannot find an good reason for it within the story, because Castor is supposed at the beginning to be both ruthless and intelligent, and drugged henchbeings is stupidity beyond what I feel is allowable in an intelligent villain. Even a dimwit can see that you are then constantly at risk of a hiccough in the supply-line and them turning on you. It's over-egging (they are bad, and they are bad and they are BAD and they are drug addicts too! They must all die! Oh, except the one who comes over to the side of good because he was at school with the hero or some such guff, he can stay alive if he wants....), not needed, and a distraction. If Castor could get hold of the stuff, why can't they? And why are they the only addicts in the country where it originates? And why are they not in the least incapacitated, merely infuriated, when they don't have it for weeks at a time? It goes against reason just a little too much.

    Bah.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:24am on 06 March 2018

    Supposedly the drug sharpens their wits and makes them more effective villains.

    (The indigenes use it too, but they of course are too wise to get addicted.)

  3. Posted by chris at 07:34pm on 06 March 2018

    In that case why are the Black Hats not trying to get hold of some, instead of hanging around Looking For Revenge? If it is available, it is available... at the very least, you'd think the Good Guys would have offered to get them what they needed and help them to tail off the drug, rather than just consigning them to the dustbin of history.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 10:55pm on 06 March 2018

    Ah, well, once you're Ruined by Drugs it's for life dont'cha know? Certainly it's suggested that they are all going to die of withdrawal.

    The impression I got was that Castor was getting hold of the stuff from the indigenes, and none of the Black Hats knew this – but that would imply he was doing it in person without employing any underlings, and he didn't have time.

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