RogerBW's Blog

Castle Gay, John Buchan 19 April 2014

Second of the Dickson McCunn novels, though he has only a minor part in most of it. Two of the former Gorbals Die-Hards, Dougie and (no longer Wee) Jaikie, go off on a walking holiday, and get involved with a kidnapped press baron and two separate lots of Sinister Foreigners.

The kidnapped newspaperman, Craw, is Dougie's boss, and Dougie holds the liveliest contempt for him, but preventing the ruin of his reputation is simply the decent thing to do, so they do it. The principal thread of the story, in fact, deals with the pampered and sheltered Craw rediscovering physicality and strength of mind as he is forced to walk with Jaikie across some distance of Scottish Borders, deal with rough country inns, and so on.

It's not a straight voyage of discovery, and while he's certainly a better man at the end than at the beginning this approach is clearly not a solution to all that might ail a man. It is however the occasion for a number of excellent descriptive passages of landscape and people.

The Sinister Foreigners (two factions from a Mitteleuropan Ruritania, the upright but misguided monarchists who hope to put their prince on the throne and the villainous Communist republicans who represent its present government) are perhaps less successful, particularly the way one of the latter is unwaveringly described as "the Jew Rosenbaum" as if he needed no other indication of his depravity. Yes, yes, published in 1930. But the villains seem to be villains primarily because they are villains, rather than because villainous means seem any more likely to gain them their ends then above-board ones. The monarchists are more interesting, in that while their entire mission was pointless they were, literally, mis-guided into it by a petty blackguard whom they made the mistake of trusting.

When McCunn himself re-enters the story towards the end, though, there's an additional layer of interest: his absorption in the romance of getting the prince safely out of the country (obvious parallels with failed Stuarts) is splendidly contrasted with his entirely verbal (and, in the end, rather more important) disarming of the Communists in their final confrontation with Craw.

Much of what we have here is observation of character, whether by the narrator's comments or by their actions. The speakers at the Socialist and Communist meetings in which Craw and Jaikie find themselves are painted as, at worst, mistaken but honest; there's no wholesale condemnation of communism here, anything like as much as of certain of the people who espouse it.

Definitely recommended. Read Huntingtower first. If you are in Australia, downloading Buchan from Project Gutenberg Australia is entirely legal.

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