Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Three Hostages by John Buchan

You may remember John Buchan Week, back in October: a whole week devoted to the works of the man who invented the modern spy thriller. The very first action thriller story ever written was Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps; this was soon followed by Greenmantle and Mr Standfast. And there, the First War having been won, Buchan rested, and turned his hand to other tales than the nail-biting adventures of the not-quite-fearless-but-definitely-courageous Richard Hannay.
One of the stories Buchan wrote then was Midwinter, which I shall review another time: a sombre, haunting story of a man who loses the world but gains his soul during Bonnie Prince Charlie's uprising. Not long after the publication of this mature and thoughtful novel, Buchan received a letter from a schoolboy who had enjoyed the Hannay books and whose well-meaning uncle had given him 'the latest Buchan'. The schoolboy wanted to know what the matter was, and exhorted Buchan to “pull himself together” and write another Hannay book.
Buchan did so, dedicating the book to the youngster. If unironically, then he must have been an extremely humble man; if ironically, then serve the kid right. The Three Hostages, while never dull, is not exactly the kind of story its predecessors are.
The aftermath of the War has been kind to our old friend Major-General Richard Hannay. Now he has a knighthood, a wise and lovely wife, a manor in the Cotswolds, a solemn baby he has named Peter John after his two most respected mentors, and a shelf full of detective stories, for he is a man of simple tastes. When the call to adventure comes once more, Hannay is inclined to think that he has done enough 'public service', as he calls his soldiering, and is entitled to a rest. But this time there are three hostages: a girl, a youth, and a little boy that have all been kidnapped; and even if Hannay could bear to look their parents in the eye and tell them he won't help, Lady Mary Hannay would have something to say about it.
Piece by piece, Hannay starts to put the puzzle together, and the trail leads straight to Dominic Medina, a powerful and ambitious man with frightening hypnotic powers, who wants to rule the world. In order to free the hostages and uncover Medina's plot, Hannay must become the man's disciple, and worse, guinea-pig.
The Three Hostages is more a psychological thriller than an action thriller; it is memorable for its characters rather than their adventures. While Ian Fleming ran the megalomaniacal villain into the ground, Medina still manages to be memorable and scary; his menace is less about weapons of mass destruction than something far more sinister and subtle. There are plenty of lovely character moments in The Three Hostages: It's nice to see a minor character from Greenmantle turn up again; Sandy Arbuthnot is as much fun as usual (in Buchan novels, never rule out the possibility that the lunatic Lithuanian llama-herder is Sandy in disguise); and you've got to love the bit where the voluble Frenchman who loves the girl hostage turns out to be quite a fighter:
“Fiche-moi la paix,” he crooned, “My friend, I am going to massacre you.”
Even Buchan regular Archie Roylance turns up briefly to make trouble (as usual)!
Most of all, I like the relationship between Hannay and his wife. When Mary turns up out of the blue, looking extremely disrespectable in a nightclub, Hannay's reaction is not distrust but relief that she has come and is also working with him; relief that he is no longer alone. Marital problems are not new to fiction; story requires conflict, and melodrama requires jealousy and misunderstandings, however silly and contrived. Hannay and Mary have a rock-solid marriage. They trust each other, love each other, and are very happy. They are very unmelodramatic, and it's very pleasant to see.
Mothers are a minor theme in The Three Hostages and in some ways it is new mother Mary's book. Just as it's refreshing to see marriage depicted as a happy and fulfilling state, so is motherhood seen as powerful, and children as a blessing to be protected.
The major theme of The Three Hostages, however, is the humanist disillusionment that followed the First World War. It is fitting that The Three Hostages is a Hannay novel about the aftermath of the war, seeing as the previous three Hannay novels were about the war itself. What Buchan felt about this aftermath is best summarised in his own words, in his memoir Memory Hold-The-Door:
It was a difficult time for those who called themselves intellectuals. They found themselves living amond the fears and uncertainties of the Middle Ages, without the support of the mediaeval faith. The belief in the perfectibility of man, the omnipotence of reason, and the certainty of progress, which began with the French Encyclopaedists and flourished among the brisk dogmatists of the nineteenth century, had more or less ended with the War. It was very clear that reason could be enchained, that human nature was showing no desire to be perfected, and that the pillars of civilisation were cracking and tilting. The inerrancy of science, too, which had sustained the Victorians, was proving a broken reed, for science was going back upon itself, cultivating doubts and substituting probabilities for certainties. The world of sense and time had become distressingly insecure, and they had no other world.
It all spelled a revolt against humanism, a return to the sourness of puritanism without its discipline and majesty. The old humanism was a revulsion from mediaeval doctrine of original sin and salvation by divine grace. It placed the centre of gravity in man and believed in progress and the perfectibility of the world. Against such a view, which was essentially un-Christian, there were bound to be many rebels, and its opponents, the great Puritans like Cromwell, found refuge in abasement before God. The new rebels did not greatly admire humanity, seeing chiefly its animal grossness, they did not believe in progress, and they had no high-pitched dreams of a coming golden age. Therefore they were rootless and unhappy, for they had not Cromwell's refuge.
The First World War was the great shattering of optimistic humanism, and Buchan discerned their weaknesses:
They were a haunted race, who seemed to labour under perpetual fear.... They seemed to be eager to get rid of personal responsibility, and therefore in politics—and in religion if they had any—were inclined to extremes, and readily surrendered their souls to an ancient church or a new prophet, an International or a dictator.
The villain of The Three Hostages, Medina, is also the zeitgeist of postwar Europe. He is the new prophet, the dictator, to whom the fearful creep in search of new meaning. Because reason, science, and human goodness had each been dethroned with the war, Medina represents the new leader: the visionary, the student of the occult, the man of dark and supernatural powers. And who can say Buchan was wrong to cast the post-war villain as a cult-leader? Was Hitler really any different?

1 comment:

Kim Marsh said...

Mmm yes there is certaimly a case for casting Hitler as a cult leader. However the huge difference between Medina and the interwar dictators seems to me to be one of intelligence. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco may have been possessed of a great deal of olitical cunning and shrewd psychology but they wrre essentiially small minded and partially( at best) educated.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...