The Three Hostages by John Buchan (1924)

Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, was always a posh pukka public schoolboy hero; his ‘let’s biff the blighters, Sandy!’, ‘oh hooray! another grand show!’ style is part of the semi-comic appeal of the Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, novels in which he is a relatively junior, unknown, everyman figure.

However, by the time of Mr Standfast, Hannay is a Lieutenant-General in charge of his own division of the British Army during World War I, and his schoolboy pluck begins to seem out of keeping for a man responsible for so many others’ lives. My favourite parts of Standfast was not the far-fetched plot, but

a) the slow beginning where Hannay goes undercover in one of the new garden suburbs to hobnob with pacifists and conscientious objectors, then goes on to meet working men in Glasgow, both of which shed fascinating light on social attitudes during the Great War
b) the very end, the description of the 1918 German Spring Offensive, where Hannay’s division has to hold the line outside Amiens, which is genuinely gripping

Setting and plot

This, the fourth Richard Hannay thriller, is set in the early Twenties and the volume of all the pukka, jolly-good-chaps characteristics of the earlier books have been turned up until it almost reads like a parody.

Our hero is now Sir Richard Hannay KCB, OBE, DSO and Legion of Honour, married to the beautiful clever Lady Mary whom he met in Mr Standfast, and living the quiet life of a country squire in his venerable Gloucestershire pile. From here he is only very reluctantly enticed back into an adventure by the combined forces of his old friends in the police, his pleading wife and the parents or lovers of the three unfortunates who have been kidnapped by a dastardly gang of international crooks. These three hostages (hence the title) are being held in order to silence their relatives while the baddies carry out some kind of wicked international crime which, frankly, is never explained.

Exaggerated

Everything in the book feels stereotyped and exaggerated: Hannay is no longer just an ordinary chap who is plunged into sudden adventure (as in the The 39 Steps), he has become for Buchan an embodiment and epitome of everything that is good and solid and traditional and conservative about British life. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. He knows the local nobs from the annual shoots or fishing trips or balls given by the Lord Lieutenant. Up in Town he meets everyone at his club or strolling down Pall Mall or is invited to join the most elite club in the land, the Thursday Club with just 15 members, half of them cabinet members.

… and in the few minutes while the men were left alone at table I fell into talk with an elderly man on my right, who proved to be a member of the Cabinet. (Chapter 4)

All his friends have similarly gone up in the world, including the dashing Sandy Arbuthnot, the hero of Greenmantle who turns out – in line with the novel’s emphasis on the rootedness of Britain’s squirearchy and class system – to be heir to a title.

I had seen his elder brother’s death in the papers, so he was now Master of Clanroyden and heir to the family estates, but I didn’t imagine that that would make a Scotch laird of him. (Ch 4)

The three hostages are, in their way, supposed to stand for everything fine and noble in Hannay’s world – a dashing young man just up at Oxford and desperate to get into the cricket team – a beautiful young woman engaged to a French fellah Hannay knew from the Division during the last show – and a schoolboy at Eton (which Hannay’s own son, the puppet-like Peter John, is down for, inevitably).

The schoolboy is clearly intended to be a model child – and draws forth from Lady Mary, throughout the book, gallons of maternal concern – which makes the description of him all the more revealing – and nauseating. The tearful parent, noble old Sir Arthur Warcliff

… showed us a miniature he carried with him – an extraordinarily handsome child with wide grey eyes and his head most nobly set upon his shoulders. A grave little boy, with the look of utter trust which belongs to children who have never in their lives been unfairly treated. Mary said something about the gentleness of the face. ‘Yes, Davie was very gentle,’ his father said. ‘I think he was the gentlest thing I have ever known. That little boy was the very flower of courtesy. But he was curiously stoical, too. When he was distressed, he only shut his lips tight, and never cried. I used often to feel rebuked by him.’

And then he told us about Davie’s performances at school, where he was not distinguished, except as showing a certain talent for cricket. ‘I am very much afraid of precocity,’ Sir Arthur said with the ghost of a smile. ‘But he was always educating himself in the right way, learning to observe and think.’ It seemed that the boy was a desperately keen naturalist and would be out at all hours watching wild things. He was a great fisherman, too, and had killed a lot of trout with the fly on hill burns in Galloway. And as the father spoke I suddenly began to realise the little chap, and to think that he was just the kind of boy I wanted Peter John to be. I liked the stories of his love of nature and trout streams. It came on me like a thunderclap that if I were in his father’s place I should certainly go mad, and I was amazed at the old man’s courage.

‘I think he had a kind of genius for animals,’ Sir Arthur said. ‘He knew the habits of birds by instinct, and used to talk of them as other people talk of their friends. He and I were great cronies, and he would tell me long stories in his little quiet voice of birds and beasts he had seen on his walks. He had odd names for them too. . . .’ The thing was almost too pitiful to endure. I felt as if I had known the child all my life. I could see him playing, I could hear his voice, and as for Mary she was unashamedly weeping. (Ch 2)

The excluded

The corollary of all this tight inclusiveness, of the clubbishness of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant squirearchical elite, is that it defines itself by everything it excludes, which is an impressively big list starting with:

  • the entire working and middle class of the nation (unless they are suitable as servants or butlers)
  • all political parties who aren’t on the side of good old England and good old country squires
  • all foreigners – except other white men from the Empire or the occasional ‘darkie’ who becomes an honourable white man by being a crack shot or good fisherman

It is fascinating to watch Buchan blame almost all the woes of the troubled years after the War on foreigners: for example, as a thick-headed Imperialist he cannot for the life of him see why the Irish want to leave the British Empire and establish their own nation:

‘Look at the Irish! They are the cleverest propagandists extant, and managed to persuade most people that they were a brave, generous, humorous, talented, warm-hearted race, cruelly yoked to a dull mercantile England, when God knows they were exactly the opposite.’

In fact, the baddie at the heart of the novel, the spider spinning vast webs of evil and crime, the Blofeld, the Mr Big, turns out to be of Irish descent and his Irishness racially, genetically predisposes him to crime.

‘This is how I read him,’ Sandy went on. ‘To begin with, there’s a far-away streak of the Latin in him, but he is mainly Irish, and that never makes a good cross. He’s the déraciné Irish, such as you find in America. I take it that he imbibed from that terrible old woman – I’ve never met her, but I see her plainly and I know that she is terrible – he imbibed that venomous hatred of imaginary things – an imaginary England, an imaginary civilisation, which they call love of country. There is no love in it. They think there is, and sentimentalise about an old simplicity, and spinning wheels and turf fires and an uncouth language, but it’s all hollow. There’s plenty of decent plain folk in Ireland, but his kind of déraciné is a ghastly throw-back to something you find in the dawn of history, hollow and cruel like the fantastic gods of their own myths. Well, you start with this ingrained hate…’ (Ch 10)

On the surface the man they’re talking about, Dominic Medina, is the handsomest man in England, the best shot in England (after the King), a leading poet of the new school, and an MP with a promising political career ahead of him, and so, improbably, on. But behind this facade, lurks a devil incarnate etc, who is using ancient Eastern techniques of hypnosis to bend the most important people in Britain to his will.

History is a record of conflict

There’s a strand of right-wing thinking which is convinced this country is a great nation with a great history which has somehow been dragged down to its present sad and tawdry state by them; if only we could get rid of them, if only we could leave the EU, if only we could get rid of red tape, if only we could get rid of all these immigrants, then England would return to being the paradise it was, er, back, er, in, you know, those far-off golden days.

This thick-headed attitude refuses to acknowledge that history is a history of conflict and struggle – in the past week I’ve been walking across Kent where monuments indicate that the first neolithic farmers lived in a society of violence and conflict, that the Romans invaded and conquered the Britons, that the Saxons invaded and conquered the post-Romans, that the Danes invaded and attacked the Saxons, that the Normans invaded and conquered the Saxons, that the Normans fell out among themselves during the civil wars of King Stephen’s and King John’s reigns, that the peasants revolted in the 14th century, that the country was riven by the Wars of the Roses for much of the 15th, that the entire social fabric of the country was turned upside down by Henry VIII’s dictatorship, that the Great Rebellion of the 17th century led to battles across all the kingdoms of Britain and to the execution of the king, that we were invaded and conquered by a Dutch king in 1688 and then by German kings in the 18th century against whom Scottish rebels rose up in 1705 and 1715 and 1745, that we were then involved in a 20-year war against the French during which many intellectuals and workers sided with the revolutionaries, that peace brought such misery there were riots and rebellions across the land which led to the agricultural disturbances of the 1810s and 20s and into the mass movement of the Chartists, which led to the organisation of trades unions and political parties which by the 1880s were calling for armed overthrow of the entire existing social order in England, which led to the Liberal reforms just before the Great War when Parliamentary government almost collapsed, and that the Great War itself was followed by an era of Depression and economic hardship among the majority of the population, which in turn led to the General Strike.

To ignore the evidence of history, to refuse to see that conflict and struggle for power and money have characterised most of English history, and instead to sit on the lawn of your Gloucestershire manor house admiring the servants stocking the pond with fish and shoeing your horses and preparing another fine dinner and imagining that there is some kind of timeless peacefulness about England, is dunderheaded idiocy. You are in the privileged position of having servants and workers to do things for you, and so do all your friends, and so you assume it is normal and natural.

But if you are this kind of thick-headed squire – the kind of empty-brained ignoramus that PG Wodehouse started satirising in his Jeeves & Wooster stories, starting in 1915 – if you can’t accept that violence and conflict is intrinsic to human nature and society, then the only explanation for all the violence and wickedness in the world is that it must result from conspiracies of wicked men.

And thus you are led to believe that these others – the non-white ones, the causes of all this mayhem – are somehow inferior, morally, spiritually etc and it is this inferiority, this moral degeneracy, which leads them to conspire and revolt against a social order which is, well, so obviously super and just right for you and the fragrant Lady Mary and sweet little Peter John.

These ‘lesser breeds’ of Kipling’s notorious poem, need to be kept in check like the Germans or managed like the various dark-skinned savages under the supervision of other white men like yourself, until they have reached the lofty eminence of the English public schoolboy who knows how to play cricket, the game and life, according to the rules.

Instead of which the long-hoped-for victory in the Great War did not lead to a New Jerusalem but seemed to have unleashed a new world where ‘standards’ had collapsed: in politics there was Bolshevism in Russia, Fascism in Italy, economic collapse in Germany; in society there was a flood of new culture, from awful negro jazz to all sorts of ghastly modern art and music and literature. Far from leading to the restoration of the status quo ante, with sound British cricketing virtues re-established in Blighty and around the world, victory in World War I seemed to have ushered in a completely new, far more threatening and chaotic world, both at home and abroad. And to those unused to thinking of history as a history of class struggles or struggles for power and resources, the post-war chaos could only be read as the result of wicked conspiracies, conspiracies by dastardly bad men – by them.

This is my theory as to why the racism and anti-semitism which mar the earlier Hannay books have, in this fourth, post-War, offering, become too pronounced and intrinsic to the plot to be laughed off.

Nigger

I went to bed fuming. This new possessory attitude, this hint of nigger-driving, had suddenly made me hate Medina. (Ch 7)

We paid five shillings apiece for a liqueur, found a table and took notice of the show. It seemed to me a wholly rotten and funereal business. A nigger band, looking like monkeys in uniform, pounded out some kind of barbarous jingle, and sad-faced marionettes moved to it. There was no gaiety or devil in that dancing, only a kind of bored perfection. Thin young men with rabbit heads and hair brushed straight back from their brows, who I suppose were professional dancing partners, held close to their breasts women of every shape and age, but all alike in having dead eyes and masks for faces, and the macabre procession moved like automata to the niggers’ rhythm. I dare say it was all very wonderful, but I was not built by Providence to appreciate it. (Ch 7)

It was the dancing-club which I had visited some weeks before with Archie Roylance. There were the sham Chinese decorations, the blaze of lights, the nigger band, the whole garish spectacle. (Ch 13)

Dago

‘I suppose he’s some sort of a Dago.’
‘Not a bit of it.  Old Spanish family settled here for three centuries. One of them rode with Rupert.’ (Ch 3)

Ah. Rode with Prince Rupert. How much more white could a man be?]

Round the skirts of the hall was the usual rastaquouère crowd of men and women drinking liqueurs and champagne, and mixed with fat Jews and blue-black dagos the flushed faces of boys from barracks or college who imagined they were seeing life. (Ch 13)

He was just starting to prospect, when he saw a little dago whom he recognised as one of the bar-tenders. (Ch 15)

Jew

And it is repellent and ugly to see Hannay/Buchan returning again and again to blame the great whipping boy of the first half of the century, the Jews. Why is Buchan at such pains to identify people as Jews and why does the word always appears as an insult in the novels? One of the three hostages is, in fact, the son of a wealthy Jew:

Paddock met me in the hall and handed me a card, on which I read the name of Mr. Julius Victor. I knew it, of course, for the name of one of the richest men in the world, the American banker who had done a lot of Britain’s financial business in the War, and was in Europe now at some international conference. I remembered that Blenkiron, who didn’t like his race, had once described him to me as ‘the whitest Jew since the Apostle Paul’. (Ch 2)

He began by saying very much what Dr. Greenslade had said the night before. A large part of the world had gone mad, and that involved the growth of inexplicable and unpredictable crime. All the old sanctities had become weakened, and men had grown too well accustomed to death and pain. This meant that the criminal had far greater resources at his command, and, if he were an able man, could mobilise a vast amount of utter recklessness and depraved ingenuity. The moral imbecile, he said, had been more or less a sport before the War; now he was a terribly common product, and throve in batches and battalions. Cruel, humourless, hard, utterly wanting in sense of proportion, but often full of a perverted poetry and drunk with rhetoric – a hideous, untameable breed had been engendered. You found it among the young Bolshevik Jews, among the young gentry of the wilder Communist sects, and very notably among the sullen murderous hobbledehoys in Ireland. (Ch 2)

He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I wasn’t much taken by him. He’s too infernally un-English. I don’t know how he got it, but there seems to be a touch of the shrill Levantine in him. Compare him with those fellows to-night. Even the Frenchmen – even Victor, though he’s an American and a Jew – are more our own way of thinking.’ (Ch 7)

The place was very empty – only about a dozen, and mostly a rather bad lot. Archie asked what right he had to carry off the girl, and lost his temper, and the manager was called in – the man with the black beard. He backed up Odell, and then Archie did a very silly thing. He said he was Sir Archibald Roylance and wasn’t going to be dictated to by any Jew. (Ch 14)

Archie is the young air ace who helped Hannay out in Mr Standfast; as with Arbuthnot, it is typical of the snobbishness of this novel that he turns out to come from a rippingly upper-class family.

Buchan is solidly of his time and class in accepting the common belief that the Bolshevik revolutionaries were somehow all Jews. A lot of them were, but a lot of them weren’t, but either way it wasn’t their ethnicity that counted – the Russian revolution wasn’t caused by Jewishness! It was the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary theory and practice which not only seized power in Russia but threatened for a while to do the same in Poland and even Germany. Hannay/Buchan cannot see or understand that.

‘Think of it!’ he cried.  ‘All the places with names like spells – Bokhara, Samarkand – run by seedy little gangs of communist Jews.’ (Ch 1)

Yes, all those places which should be accessible to upper-class white men like Hannay and his pukka friends to treat as adventure playgrounds, now being run by the people who live there – outrageous!

The plot

The plot is twaddle which doesn’t make sense even on its own terms – a shadowy criminal organisation which links American financiers with Greek traders with Baku oilmen etc is on the verge of some never-defined ‘liquidation’. This is just the conspiracy theory background – the plot quickly boils down to focusing on one charismatic baddie in London who

a) unnecessarily takes three random hostages
b) unnecessarily sends a clue about their whereabouts in a poem (!) to the authorities
c) unnecessarily takes Hannay into his confidence once he’s convinced he’s hypnotised him to become one of his ‘followers’

This allows Hannay and his trusty lieutenants, Sandy Arbuthnot and Archie Roylance, plus his beloved wife Lady Mary, to solve the riddle, track down the hostages, and foil the dastardly ‘liquidation’, whatever that was going to be.

Thriller motifs

More interesting than the paper-thin plot is the literary interest of observing how many of motifs of the thriller genre Buchan established or popularised: car chases and crashes, hostages, hair-raising mountain climbs, breakneck airplane stunts, sinisterly empty chateaux, germ warfare, as well as the fundamental trope of a shadowy secret criminal organisation with tentacles reaching up to the highest in the land.

Social history

And full of social history. If the opening chapters of Mr Standfast give a sense of the range of opposition views about the Great War, then The Three Hostages gives a fascinating insight into the mindset of right-wing, philistine, Imperialist landed gentry of the 1920s.

Ireland The Irish are somehow deluded to want their own country – and are depicted as lazy, good-for-nothing, violent fanatics.

Bolshevik Russia turns out to have been seized not by revolutionaries with a clear political and economic theory, but by dirty Jews.

India 

We would have drifted into politics, if Pugh had not asked him [the Right Honourable Sandy Arbuthnot] his opinion of Gandhi. That led him into an exposition of the meaning of the fanatic, a subject on which he was well qualified to speak, for he had consorted with most varieties.

‘He is always in the technical sense mad – that is, his mind is tilted from its balance, and since we live by balance he is a wrecker, a crowbar in the machinery. His power comes from the appeal he makes to the imperfectly balanced, and as these are never the majority his appeal is limited. But there is one kind of fanatic whose strength comes from balance, from a lunatic balance. You cannot say that there is any one thing abnormal about him, for he is all abnormal. He is as balanced as you or me, but, so to speak, in a fourth-dimensional world. That kind of man has no logical gaps in his creed. Within his insane postulates he is brilliantly sane.’

It was Brits like this, with this unsophisticated racist mindset, who were still running India and simply couldn’t understand Gandhi or Jinnah or, in the end, the entire nation they were put in charge of.

Psychoanalysis It is a surprise to see psychoanalysis mentioned early on in the book – in fact it provides a basis for the plot insofar as its popular versions brought to the fore the themes of madness and sanity and the idea of the unconscious, savage or primitive mind. This proves to be the crux of the plot, that Medina’s success is due to him exerting a deeper-than-hypnotic control over various high public officials.

But, typically, Buchan mentions psychoanalysis only to pooh pooh it – though he doesn’t mention it, psychoanalysis was of course the invention of his least favourite people, the Jews – and he has that stock character of English fiction, the bluff 18th century country doctor, explain that of course there’s nothing new in this psychoanalysis stuff – ‘Why, you know old chap, we knew about that all along, no need for some damn foreigner to tell us Brits.’

‘Take all this chatter about psycho-analysis. There’s nothing very new in the doctrine, but people are beginning to work it out into details, and making considerable asses of themselves in the process. It’s an awful thing when a scientific truth becomes the quarry of the half-baked.’ (Ch 1)

Summary

If the novel were retitled ‘A pure white English virgin, a young sportsman up at Oxford and a virtuous public schoolboy are threatened by an Irish degenerate, nigger bands, filthy dagos and grasping Jews’ it might give a more accurate flavour of this thrilling, fascinating and appalling text.

Related links

Cover of an early edition of the three Hostages

Cover of an early edition of The Three Hostages

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