RogerBW's Blog

The Three Hostages, John Buchan 27 September 2014

Fourth of Buchan's books about Richard Hannay; 1920s thud-and-blunder.

A dangerous gang that includes Bolsheviks, anarchists, and other low forms of life has kidnapped three highly-placed people. The police will be rolling up the gang soon anyway, but the hostages need to be found and rescued, or they'll probably be killed. But nobody has a clue as to where they are, so Hannay is called out of his rural retirement (with his wife, Mary, and young son) to help. The only clue is, frankly, a huge coincidence.

Actually there's rather a lot of coincidence and incompetence on the part of the villains here. One of the hostages is being held in an isolated place, but apparently there's no sort of check-in procedure, as at a later point his captor is overpowered and imprisoned and nobody seems worried about the other bad guys finding out. I think the real tipping point for me was the massage chair apparently on rails, so that our hero (though faking being hypnotised, and unable to see) can be wheeled into another room where he picks up an important clue of scent. Why the person who's going to be working on him can't simply walk through herself is never made clear.

Hannay is reluctant to get involved at all at first, and only does so when the father of the third hostage (a young boy) breaks down at him. I know about the Refusal of the Call and all that, but I think it's somewhat over-played; yes, Hannay is having a happy life with his wife, and he did begin as an everyman thrown into perilous situations, but at this point he's got a solid track record and he seems to have no good reason for such reluctance.

Where the book really starts to go astray is with the principal villain, whose primary stock-in-trade is hypnotism and consequent psychological dominance. In itself that's a reasonably amusing pulp conceit; the Master of Men's Minds, and so on. But, since Hannay pursues his investigation by appearing to come under his spell, much of the book is spent with Hannay hanging around waiting for something to happen or a clue to be let slip, rather than actually going out and doing stuff. There is rarely any sense of danger to Hannay himself: everyone else tells him how perilous is his situation, but we don't get any feel of it. When Turpin, one of his allies, is captured, it's a rare moment of tension, and the chapter dealing with Mary's actions is one of the better parts of the book. Those are proof that Buchan wasn't simply unable to write the good stuff all of a sudden; but Hannay is essentially an action hero, and there isn't much action for him here. A trip to Norway about half-way through provides most of it. For most of the time, he's hanging around London, where once more Buchan appears to feel that calling someone "the Jew" is all we need to know about that character. (It's not even the attitude that concerns me particularly, as everyone who isn't British or at least French comes off fairly badly; it's that the single word is meant to tell us about appearance, attitude and morals all at once. Using a stock character is acceptable, but one's meant to peel off the label first.)

This is all somewhat salvaged by what's in effect the epilogue, a pair of chapters after the main plot's finished which shift the action to Scotland and the sort of lovingly-detailed landscape and stalk that Buchan does so well. (Though I couldn't help noticing that the original publication of The Most Dangerous Game was the same year that this book came out.) Here it's wedged in at the end, though; in the far superior John Macnab, from only the following year, or even in Huntingtower from two years earlier, it's the major part of the plot. It ends very abruptly, with most of the convential coda (the return of the hostages to their families, and so on) having already happened at the end of the main story, and I can't help suspecting that it was hastily appended to the manuscript.

One must I think regard this as a rare misfire for Buchan; he clearly doesn't like writing about urban environments, and he's better off in the country.

Followed by The Island of Sheep. Bring plenty of bottled prawns.

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