RogerBW's Blog

The Island of Sheep, John Buchan 22 May 2018

1936 thriller, inter-war thud-and-blunder, last novel dealing with Richard Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot. Hannay is feeling old and stale, not helped by seeing an old firebrand friend settled in suburban domesticity, when an old promise leads to adventure one more time.

The moment-to-moment action, the car chase, the stalk across rough country, the removal of a hostage from a school before she can be kidnapped, the various shenanigans on not-the-Faroes… these all work well. Buchan is still good at this stuff. And the sense of discontent at getting old and over-comfortable is probably from the heart (he'd recently been appointed Governor-General of Canada). But the overall plot, never a strong point, is weak in the extreme, and all too many people have to behave like idiots to make it work.

("We're on an isolated island waiting to be attacked. Oh, the telegraph line's down. And the motor-boat has been damaged. That's interesting. Are these things under warranty?")

There's too much foreshadowing that isn't borne out: there's the promise of a struggle of titans between Sandy and d'Ingraville, last survivor of the villains of the previous book, because such men are on a completely different level from ordinary mortals and only one of them can survive… and it doesn't happen. Hannay's son Peter John has got into falconry, and plenty of time is spent in developing this and the particular bird that he insists on bringing on the adventure with him… and then all she does is carry a message. The triumph is pure deus ex machina (or possibly whale-hunt ex machina).

So when the action flags, as it does from time to time, there's not much pull from the plot to keep one going. And one notices how silly people are being, and that physiognomy is destiny, and just why is it the bad guys are attacking this island anyway, given their actual goals? And how was that disguise so totally successful against a supremely suspicious person?

Eh. The small stuff still works. It's rather the same problem as in some modern television, in fact, when it concentrates on the individual nifty moments while failing to string them together convincingly. There's too much coincidence and too little earning of the victories.

Still good, but far from the best.

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Previous in series: The Three Hostages | Series: Richard Hannay

  1. Posted by chris at 11:13am on 22 May 2018

    I did wonder, myself, what sort of falconer takes a falcon around with him in a kayak at sea; domesticated raptors, on the whole, don't like getting cold and damp all that much and tend to die of it overnight, and where did he put her while he was using his paddle?

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