Here’s another of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels.
The series runs:
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915);
Mr Standfast (1919);
The Three Hostages (1924);
The Island of Sheep (1936).
Review by David R:
As with “Greenmantle”, this is very much a novel of its time. Germans are occasionally referred to as “The Boche” and there is little sympathy wasted on them or their respective fates. This can be justified in terms of the plot which demonstrates a stop-at-nothing approach to victory. There is evidence that the Germans did actually employ the secret device described in the book.
There is certainly plenty of action in this story, and it has a faster pace than Greenmantle. There are similarities with “The 39 Steps” especially where the action switches to Scotland. As in “Greenmantle” Buchan courts controversy here by portraying a conscientious objector as a man of courage, so that his motive in refusing to fight is not one of cowardice. Hannay encounters the CO Wake on the Isle of Skye, where he has gone to climb. Wake mistakes Hannay in the character he has been portraying for a German spy, and they have a fight. Later, Wake joins up, and Hannay comes across him in France. As in others stories, there is a good deal of coincidence; however this is often the case in real life.
The romantic scenes are a bit stilted to modern eyes; Hannay becomes enamoured of the girl who was introduced at the beginning of the story as his contact, Mary Lamington. However, she is eighteen, and Hannay is nearly forty. He hopes that, after the war, he might somehow find the courage to speak of his affection. Hannay has difficulty coming to terms with the activities of the heroine Mary Lamington as a spy, and it is the American Blenkiron who persuades him that the role women are taking in the war proves they are not the porcelain figures that convention ascribed to them. “I’m damned if I’ll allow it,” says Hannay, when it is proposed to use Mary as a double agent. “But Miss Mary has consented,” replies Blenkiron. “She made the plan.”
There is some typical Anglicisation of French e.g. “Ockott Saint Anny” for Eaucourt Sainte-Anne (cf “Wipers” for Ypres) which would be familiar to anyone serving on the Western Front. This gives the story a touch of verisimilitude. The locations, too, are often genuine e.g. Polygon Wood, or adapted from genuine places – Eaucourt-sur-Somme.
I think Buchan shows an awareness of contemporary issues here. By the time the book was published, the war was over. Some women had been given the vote, and the public were coming to terms with the enormous loss of life that the fighting had caused. Whilst it was still timely to write about the battles, there was a place to show that “they also served who only stood and waited.” There is courage shown by many characters in many situations. Buchan was not the sort of man to join the Bloomsbury set for example; he was much too conventional for that. Nevertheless, I think that his novels are an accurate reflection of the times in which they were written. Nearly 100 years later, it is perhaps difficult to attune oneself to the attitudes of an earlier generation. Before we criticise authors for not thinking like we do now, we have to understand the times in which they were living. After all, no-one criticises Jane Austen because her females follow the conventions of their day.