“The Three Hostages” by John Buchan – a book very much of its time

The Three Hostages by John Buchan is one of a series of books he wrote about Richard Hannay of which the best known is The Thirty-Nine Steps. In this novel Hannay is married and has a small son. He has fought his war and is farming now but is occasionally of use to powerful men in the service of their country. He is approaches by a man whose grandson has disappeared and he agrees to take the case to find out what has happened and to rescue him if possible. After consulting people he knows in and on the edge of government he discovers that there are three hostages and that the authorities are worried about these events. They think that Hannay is just the man to sort things out.

This novel is actually rather absurd because it involves hypnotism and people being in the power of others so that they will do exactly what is asked of them. (It reminded me a bit of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.) Hannay, of course, as befits a right thinking English gentleman, doesn’t submit to this foreign evil and is able to save the day and rescue the three hostages of the title – I don’t think that’s a spoiler because this is the sort of book which flags up its ending from the beginning.

The book is of interest because of what it tells you about society just after WW1. The author himself was well known in public circles and eventually, as Lord Tweeedsmuir, became Governor General of Canada so I am pretty sure that he is accurate in his portrayals of how people thought and acted at the time. He creates a very male world where it is important who you know and where knowing the right person will open the right doors for you. Things which are suspect or evil are often foreign and foreign people behave in secretive and underhand ways. A true Englishman keeps his promises, never lets down a friend and protects women and children.

The book is actually quite a good story, when you accept the unlikely effects of hypnotism, and it is fast paced but it very much represents the values of its time. I’ve read a few books lately of that sort including one by Agatha Christie and although I understand the biases and prejudices of the time when these stories were written they do make me wince in places and some of it is quite uncomfortable to read. I think I shall maybe read fewer popular novels from the early twentieth century for a while. If you do want to read the books of John Buchan I would start with The Thirty-Nine Steps but be prepared for the fact that it has many of the same problems as this novel although I think it is a better story.

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