This is an oldie but a goodie. Published in 1924, it is the fourth of the Richard Hannay stories – or ‘shockers’ as he called them, though there is nothing we would find shocking about them. What he probably meant was that they were intended to be light and popular – a ‘romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’. It was perhaps his self-deprecating way of excusing a shocking lapse of taste by a writer who thought his best works were his histories and biographies.
Richard Hannay – now Sir Richard – is comfortably established on his country estate with his wife – Mary, from the previous Hannay book, Mr Standfast (1919) – and young son. His old boss in the Foreign Office warns him that he is about to be asked to undertake ‘a troublesome piece of business’, and sure enough, he is approached by Julius Victor, who wants Hannay’s help in finding his daughter who has been kidnapped. Hannay refuses. His old friend Macgillivrary from Scotland Yard also solicits his help, explaining that there have been three kidnappings and that they are part of a much larger conspiracy, the only clues to which lie in some lines of apparent doggerel. Hannay is still unmoved. But guess what? He finally agrees to help.
Buchan describes the story as ‘a pure contest of wits’. This isn’t quite true, because the first steps towards solving the puzzle of the apparent doggerel rely on the subconscious, a concept that had become quite fashionable by the nineteen twenties. Buchan is also interested in ‘the amount of stark craziness that the War has left in the world … a dislocation of the mechanism of human reasoning ’. This arises in the context of a discussion of detective fiction, which I’ve always found fascinating in light of this story. Hannay’s friend Dr Greenslade explains that normally, detective fiction writers fix on the solution first, and then invent a problem to suit it. They think of several apparently unconnected facts or events, and devise a connection. ‘The author writes the story inductively, and the reader follows it deductively.’ But Greenslade says that the old forms of detective writing are no longer convincing because the ‘argus-eyed, lightning-brained expert’ can’t take account of the ‘pukka madness’ that now results in crime. So how far is Buchan following the old prescription of inventing the connection between apparently disparate events, and how far is his hero coming to terms with madness and moral dislocation? Is he perhaps writing a new kind of mystery fiction from which a line may be traced to the current crop of psychological crime and serial killer thrillers?
I have previously written disparagingly of Dornford Yates’s 1920s upper-class-twits-of-the-year style heroes, and I have to admit that Buchan and his hero Hannay are both an unquestioning part of the British upper middle class. This may grate on some readers, as may various other of his prejudices. For example, Julius Victor is described as ‘the whitest Jew since the Apostle Paul’. Moral degeneracy is ascribed to ‘the classes that shirked the war – you see it in Ireland’. Among the ‘moral imbeciles’, are found ‘young Bolshevik Jews, the younger entry of the wilder communist sects, and … the sullen murderous hobbledehoys in Ireland.’ It doesn’t make it any better that these racial and political stereotypes are the tools of the real villains, whose only ends are wealth and power. On the other hand ‘cruel, humourless, hard, utterly wanting in sense of proportion’ doesn’t seem a bad description of Hitler and his leading Nazis, or Stalin and his acolytes, so maybe Buchan’s ideas about moral dislocation weren’t just a reflection of his prejudices.
The story is undoubtedly melodramatic. Hannay’s helpers in solving the mystery – his wife Mary and his old friend Sandy Arbuthnot – are both too good to be true, to say nothing of too clever. So is it worth reading this old stuff? I still enjoy the way the plot is worked through. Maybe my pleasure in the book is just nostalgia, since for all Buchan’s attempts to introduce psychology into the story, it really is still just a classic adventure story like all the Hannay books. But in my view, no less worth reading for that, particularly if you are interested in the history and development of the thriller.
While Buchan’s books The Thirty Nine Steps and to a lesser extent Greenmantle are much better known, The Three Hostages is readily available on Amazon, and Project Gutenberg. You can read about Buchan here, including his time as Governor General of Canada, and there is a John Buchan Society, found here. And here is another blogger who more or less agrees with me about the book.