RogerBW's Blog

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan 01 August 2014

Third of the "Dickson McCunn" novels: superior thud and blunder. The affairs of Evallonia, the mitteleuropan country that provided motivations in Castle Gay, are now in the foreground, as forces gather round the potential restoration of its monarchy.

This is mostly Jaikie's book again, with a bit of Dickson McCunn from time to time. The first chapter deals with getting everyone out of England and Scotland to where they're needed, and then Jaikie plunges into a volatile multi-sided situation.

Two of the major players were seen in Castle Gay: the monarchists, with Prince John as their figurehead but mostly run by the largely ineffective elder statesmen, and Mastrovin's communist gangsters. Now we also meet the Juventus youth movement, which has massive popular support but no actual plans for how it will rule. All of these factions have to be juggled as the old republican government, which is largely Mastrovin's tool, but collapses quietly off-stage.

The monarchists are still essentially benevolent but incompetent; it's they that our heroes most blatantly direct. (Yeah, "what these people need is a white man", but actually what they mostly need is any common-sensical outside perspective; I can forgive Buchan for this even if he was on his way to be Governor-General of Canada at the time.) Mastrovin to me seemed less effectively menacing this time round, though with a more practical motivation than before; it helps that he's being purely a force of opposition rather than a cipher to be observed who then transforms into opposition.

The novel was published in 1935, and to this modern reader it is very hard to see the military-style organisation of Juventus without thinking of the German Youth Movement and what it became (indeed, had largely become by the time this was written). The term "Green Shirts" is perhaps unfortunate here. But there's more subtlety than one might expect; while Buchan clearly has great sympathy with their democratic ideals, he does point out that they're unable to run an effective government on their own, largely unaware of that problem, and casting about for an overall leader to follow.

There's less description of scenery than in previous books, though Jaikie's walking-tour gives us a bit near the start, but plenty of observation of character. People are very often more complex than they look: Count Paul Jovian is an Evallonian leader of Juventus, but he's also Jaikie's friend Ashie from Cambridge, and the two rĂ´les sometimes find themselves at odds within him.

The various women don't come off as well; Janet Roylance and Jaikie's true love Alison have little to do, and the Countess Araminta Troyos is painted as one of the major obstacles who can't be taken head-on but turns out to be disappointingly easy to manipulate. I wonder if this part might have worked better had Janet and Alison been the ones to manipulate her, rather than Jaikie.

The plot is a little disjointed; Jaikie goes into Evallonia and meets the various factions, a plot is laid to get Juventus and the Monarchists pointing in the same direction, and Mastrovin's gang kidnaps several of the principals. Things are distinctly darker than in previous books; after all, our principals are outside Britain, and things are done differently here. The story doesn't always hang together as well as it might, but it's still satisfying overall.

This modern reader can't help feeling, with some wistfulness, that by 1950 it would probably all have ended up as the People's Democratic Republic of Evallonia whatever had happened in 1935.

Probably read Huntingtower, and certainly read Castle Gay, first. If you are in Australia, downloading Buchan from Project Gutenberg Australia is entirely legal.

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