The Three Hostages by John Buchan (1924)

Review by David R:

This is the fourth of Buchan’s novels to feature Richard Hannay.

The action is set around 1921. After The Great War, Hannay has married Mary Lamington, (Mr. Standfast) and settled into a manor house, where he is quite content to live the life of the country squire. However, one day he gets a call from his old boss, asking for his help. Hannay is not inclined to get mixed up in anything, but then he learns that three people have been kidnapped, and one is only 10 years old. The kidnappers are a gang of criminals who have seized them as insurance. The kidnappers have sent a peculiar verse, which may be a clue as to the whereabouts of the captives.

With Buchan’s usual coincidences, Hannay gets on the track of the leader, although to begin with, he does not realise this. By keeping close to the leader, and puzzling out the clues, Hannay, with the help of some friends, manages to free the hostages and break the gang.  The book is divided into two parts; the second part is a detailed account of a manhunt in the form of a deer stalk, with Hannay as the stag.

As before, this is a novel of its time. Buchan seems to be reacting to what was probably a general panic amongst the ruling classes of that time, and mentions Bolsheviks, Communists, Jews and the Irish as examples of the way that the War has left things very unsettled. He uses the terms “dagos” and “niggers” to describe people at a seedy nightclub, words which I doubt would be permitted today.

Once again, there are a number of coincidences, without which Hannay would have been unable to break the case. He also relies on the assistance of characters from earlier tales, including Sandy Arbuthnot (Greenmantle) and Archie Roylance (Mr. Standfast), and Mary too plays an important part. In common with many other novelists of the time, the main characters are all from the Upper Classes.

Although there is some detection employed, I would hesitate to describe this as a detective story, as there is no possibility that the reader could work out the clues for themselves.

This book contains what for me is a very fine piece of writing. I sometimes feel that an author is creating an atmosphere, although I cannot detect how it is being done. In this instance Hannay is hypnotised, not once but several times by different people, in a succession of attempts to control his mind. The descriptive passages run on for 21 pages, including an interlude, and even after several readings, I still feel rather creepy about the events described.

The second part of the book, the stalk, is written by a man who clearly knew all about deer stalking. Current feeling is very much against this type of activity, but if you wish to understand how it is done, reading this explains the subtleties of the process. You may skip the second part altogether, but it is well worth reading for the thrill of the hunt, and the final outcome.

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3 thoughts on “The Three Hostages by John Buchan (1924)

  1. Pingback: Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916) | Reading 1900-1950

  2. Pingback: The Island of Sheep by John Buchan (1936) | Reading 1900-1950

  3. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere, July 2013 | Past Offences

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