Saturday, October 11, 2014

Castle Gay by John Buchan

John Buchan, for those of you who are new here, is one of my favourite authors. Among other things, he came up with a plan to avert World War II (Neville Chamberlain didn't listen), he became an honorary Indian chief (see photo, below) and he almost singlehandedly invented the modern spy thriller while working in intelligence during World War I. You can find reviews of many other Buchan novels here on Vintage Novels under the John Buchan tag, and I do wholeheartedly recommend them to you.

My latest Buchan re-read is Castle Gay, the second in the three Dickson McCunn novels which began with Huntingtower. Six years after the end of Huntingtower, the Gorbals Die-Hards--the gang of street boys adopted by the hobbit-like Dickson at the end of the last book--have grown up to make their way in the world. When Jaikie, on holiday from Cambridge after a hard-fought rugby battle with the Australians, and Dougal, with a pocket full of press clippings and a head full of radical political notions, set out together on a walking holiday in the Scottish countryside, the last thing they expect to stumble upon is a kidnapped newpaper magnate (who also happens to be Dougal's boss) and a sinister Eastern European conspiracy. Dougal and Jaikie join forces with a snooping journalist, an aristocratic widow, the girl next door, an exiled prince, two beagles, a terrier, and everyone's favourite grocer, Dickson McCunn, to foil the baddies and save the newspaper magnate's reputation.

And in the process, they may just end up saving his soul.

Even when he's not at the top of his form--and much as I love Buchan, I have to admit that Castle Gay is not the top of his form--Buchan is good fun to read. Castle Gay has a fitful and meandering plot, a good deal of dry humour, character sketches of the Trollopian style, and lots of gentle satire. Like all the Dickson McCunn books, it starts out with a walking-holiday and goes on to feature a mysterious house at the centre of international intrigue, complete with much praise of the merits of conventional middle-class Christendom against the initially well-meaning and quirky but ultimately sinister spectre of modernism and Marxism.

How does this play out in Castle Gay? Not particularly coherently, but very charmingly. You have Thomas Carlyle Craw, the fussy and old-maidish media mogul whose Valley of Humiliation comes in the shape of an unsympathetic young man marching him across pretty bits of the Scottish countryside and lodging him in wayside hotels where the only fare seems to be ham and eggs--an updated version of Davie Balfour and Alan Breck's moss-trooping. It's hardly Dante's Inferno, but it's a privilege to follow Mr Craw through repentance unto a salvation that enables him to see the world more honestly, less as a background for himself and his own comfort, and more as a challenge to taken up.

Then there's Mrs Brisbane-Brown, the repository of history and guardian of traditions, an aristocratic lady who expects the men--and even the women--around her to be dauntless and hardy and firm in their minds. The last guardian of a fading world, "Aunt Harriet" stands in stark contrast to the soft and spineless Mr Craw. In the pages of Castle Gay, Buchan issues a challenge not just to his own characters but to the rising middle-class modernism of his times. Have they the humility, the courage, the honour, and the just reverence for the legacy of Christendom, to justify their inheritance of wealth and power?

If Dickson McCunn, the stout-hearted, hobbit-natured grocer is any indication, the answer is yes--with repentance.

Find Castle Gay on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.


Lady Bibliophile said...

Good old Dickson McCunn. This sounds like a great book, and I'm going to have to read him again sometime. :)


Rachel Heffington said...

I...have never read any Buchan. I think I might need to remedy this.

Lady Bibliophile said...

@Rachel--Oh, my, yes. He's wonderful. Tight plotting, fantastic war-time atmosphere, and sensory detail woven in so tightly it's a masterpiece.

I wish I could have put him on the Market Analysis for my novel proposal, but alas, he was not published in the last 5 years, so I had to pass him by.


Anna said...

If this one is not his best, is there one of his books you would recommend as a starting point?

Suzannah said...

Rachel, yes! As Schuyler says, he's wonderful, though not all his books have to do with WWI.

Anna, even when Buchan is not at his best, just doodling and laughing (as he does in CASTLE GAY), he's great.

My two top picks for the reader anxious to know who John Buchan is and what makes him tick, are JOHN MACNAB and HUNTINGTOWER, which is the book that comes before this one.

Or you could skip straight to the Richard Hannay spy novels--THE THIRTY NINE STEPS, GREENMANTL, MR STANDFAST.

Annita Wheeler Parmelee said...

Thirty None Steps and Mr. Standfast!

Annita Wheeler Parmelee said...

Thirty None Steps and Mr. Standfast!

Anonymous said...

I love your blog and come here so often! You really have a lot of wisdom here! I read your book 'War Games', and especially liked the part about The Lord of the Rings, which is also my favorite book. I know that this is completely off topic for this post, but I was wondering if you had seen the new Hobbit movies and what you thought of them. They are definitely not my favorite movies, but I am sort of okay with them. What is your opinion of them, and what do think can be learned from them, (if anything)?

Again, I love your blog and your book, and hope that you will continue doing this for many years!
God bless you

Suzannah said...

Hello there! I'm so glad you commented--it's always so nice to hear from people who've enjoyed my blog, and even more special, my book!

I have seen the first two HOBBIT movies, yes. Ahh...I'm not sure my opinion is worth much, for I'm not a movie expert. I liked bits of the first one, and I think the second is what Shakespeare would have called a "prodigious birth". I think the big lesson we can learn from current attempts to do Tolkien justice on the movie screen, is that a modernist will never understand the nobility of Christendom. Peter Jackson obviously loves and delights in Tolkien--as do we all--but he is trying to reproduce the blazing glories of an illuminated manuscript with a 12-pack of crayons.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for replying! That is basically my opinion.

kim marsh said...

There is not enough in the Hobbit to make three movies and what has been added is juvenile fan fiction. That remark is uncharitable and I acknowledge the work that has been put in but it is not Tolkien. At which point my wife tells me that it's a film and I retire muttering to myself.

Meg Murphy said...

Love this bit of backstory, (I am afraid I’ve read more by Buchan than about him), the picture makes me wonder if Sandy Arbuthnot is at least a bit based on Buchan himself as well Herbert and Lawrence?

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed it Meg. I'm not sure I'd say that any of Buchan's characters are particularly based on him, but I think every author produces characters out of himself (or herself).


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