Saturday, August 9, 2014

John Buchan’s The Three Hostages

The Three Hostages, published in 1924, was the fourth of John Buchan’s five Richard Hannay spy thrillers. The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle and Mr Standfast had chronicled Hannay’s wartime adventures. The Three Hostages on the other hand is a spy thriller set in the postwar world. 

It is now 1924 and Major-General Sir Richard Hannay is living in contented retirement with his wife and their young son. Hannay is now middle-aged and has lost his taste for adventure. He wants peace and quiet. Nothing would tempt him back into the cloak-and-dagger world of spies and conspiracies. Well, almost nothing. When he is informed of a gigantic international criminal conspiracy he is still determined to have nothing to do with it,  to let younger men carry the burden and remain on his beloved farm. All that changes when he learns that this criminal organisation, as a precaution against any action that may be taken against them, has taken three hostages. And one of the hostages is a young boy. Hannay immediately thinks of his own young son, and how he would feel if he had been kidnapped. He agrees to contribute his services to the fight against these criminals.

The British government of course has professionals to undertake these sorts of investigations, but Hannay has a reputation for achieving success by unorthodox methods and it is believed that he might succeed where the professionals would not.

Hannay begins his investigations with a very unlikely clue - four lines of poetry left behind at the scenes of each of the kidnappings. It seems unlikely to be of any real significance but Hannay has a gut feeling that somehow these four lines of verse contain the clues needed to smash a vast criminal organisation and save the lives of the three hostages. Hannay decides to follow his instincts.

The clue of the poetry is a characteristic Buchan device, rather like the famous thirty-nine steps of his novel of that name.

Hannay quickly comes to the conclusion that Dominick Medina is involved in the criminal plot in a very major way. Hannay had crossed swords with some formidable opponents in the past but Medina is a new type of villain. His wartime enemies, no matter how ruthless they may have been, were acting in the belief that they were serving their country. Medina serves nobody but himself. He is a politician, and a rising star in the world of politics. Medina is not only a new type of enemy for Richard Hannay, he is a new type of villain for Buchan. Medina is the kind of charismatic political leader that would cause the world so much misery during the course of the 20th century. Buchan believed that the First World War had changed everything, and not for the better. The future would belong to men like Medina who could manipulate the masses. Medina is a prototype not only for the charismatic dictators of the 20s and 20s but for the cynical democratic politicians who would begin the slow process of dismantling western civilisation. 

Buchan in 1924 viewed the future with extreme pessimism. He felt that the future would not be a pleasant one and he was remarkably prescient about the natures of the unpleasantnesses to come. The future would belong to whoever could control the mass media. He had no illusions about democracy. Politics was now purely about power. 

Dominick Medina is not just a skilled politician. He has mastered the techniques of hypnosis and mind control. To overcome this most dangerous enemy Richard Hannay will have to pretend to submit to Medina’s mind control. He will have to pretend to be a puppet with no will of his own. Medina’s powers are considerable but Hannay holds one ace in his hand. He happens to be just about the world’s worst hypnotic subject. He is one of those people who is almost entirely impervious to hypnosis. The fact that Medina is unaware of this is Hannay’s best hope for success.

The core of the novel is a subtle battle of wills between Medina and Hannay, with Hannay making use of the fact that Medina is convinced that he has subjugated Hannay entirely.

There is also plenty of suspense as Hannay stalks Medina’s underlings as far as Norway. The novel ends with a particularly suspenseful extended hunt through the Scottish highlands with Hannay and Medina stalking each other. It’s the kind of action sequence that Buchan always handled extremely well.

There are some obvious parallels with the immensely popular Bulldog Drummond novels of H. C. McNeile which also deal with a First World War veteran turned amateur crime-fighter, and The Three Hostages shares with the Bulldog Drummond books a hostility towards the postwar world.  These books could be, and often have been, labelled as reactionary, although their pessimism about the future of western civilisation has turned out to be chillingly accurate. The Three Hostages is also spectacularly and delightfully politically incorrect.

The Three Hostages has suspense and excitement, it has a complex and wonderfully sinister super-villain, it has hypnosis and eastern mind-control techniques and it has an international criminal conspiracy on the grandest scale. You really can’t ask for much more in a thriller. Highly recommended.

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