Fast cars and the open road: Reading speed in Dornford Yates

Dornford Yates by Bassano, 18 February 1935 copyright The National Portrait Gallery
Dornford Yates by Bassano, 18 February 1935 copyright The National Portrait Gallery

Brief toot on my academic trumpet here: I had another article published, on how the intensely middlebrow and thriller / comedy novelist Dornford Yates used techniques and ideas from avant garde thinking when writing about fast cars, car chases, driving at speed, and the thrill of speed on the open road (clue: it’s all from Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto). You can read it as an open access pdf on Advanced Access for a little while here.

I started talking about these ideas in a paper to the Modernist Studies Association back in 2013, had written the article by June 2014, and then spent a long time trying to get an academic journal to pay it any attention. One US journal, which shall be nameless but it specialises in modern fiction, had me rewrite the thing three times before they finally rejected it. I’m not sure what I feel about that now. At the time, I just had my head down, rewriting and rewriting, and was happy to have their feedback. Now, while I’m still grateful for the process that made a better article, and made me tackle what I mean by ‘modernist’ properly, I’m bemused as to why they strung me along for so long, if they didn’t want the article in the first place. Perhaps the thought of publishing work on an author not considered modernist was too much for them. In the meantime my book on Yates, Buchan and Thirkell came out, which might have given my ideas more respectability.

The Review of English Studies, a much more open-minded journal, also put me through three revisions, but these were straightforward, and led to the article they wanted to publish, so I’m very happy with that. Perhaps they were more open to the subject because they’re published by a British publisher, and Yates is a British author. Whatever: it’s finally out and I can file that research under ‘published’. I’ve posted reviews of a couple of Yates novels elsewhere in this site: find them via the Search box at the top right.

Rampaging in the Pyrenees: Dornford Yates’s Adèle and Co.

Yates 1Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is Y, and today’s author’s name really begins with M, but his pen-name, by which he was made famous from the 1920s, begins with Y. Dornford Yates was the pseudonym of Cecil William Mercer, and he was famous for two kinds of fiction. The first were his comic short stories which are, frankly and honestly, laugh-out-loud funnier than anything his contemporary P G Wodehouse ever wrote. The second are his tough, gritted teeth, stiff-upper-lip thrillers, which specialise in two-chapter car chases and episodes of ludicrous physical endurance. There is a third category in his fiction, the conservative melodrama of tight-lipped passion (see my post on one of these from April), but he wrote these less often when he realised how much better his readers liked the comic stories and thrillers. The short stories were populated by a family of five cousins, and various friends, and the book I‘m talking about today is the first full-length novel Yates wrote featuring these characters.

Yates 2They are known as the Berries, because the head of their family is Berry, Bertram Pleydell, who is married to Daphne, his cousin. Her brother is Boy Pleydell, and these three live together with two other cousins, Jonah and Jill Mansel. Berry is a comic buffoon of genius. Daphne is his foil with quite a lot of spirit of her own: she throws bread rolls at her husband when he is being socially appalling. Boy is a suave ladies’ man, a lawyer and a novelist, and Yates’ alter ego. Jonah is the hero of most of the thrillers, where he has a more dictatorial character, but in the comic fiction he is their action man. Jill is the baby of the family, and is persistently portrayed as infantile even in her middle-aged widowhood, deep into the 1950s. The really strange thing about these cousins is not that they live together as a tight family unit, but that no-one else is allowed to join for very long. After innumerable flirtations, Boy finally marries the American girl Adèle, but she leaves him some time in the late 1920s, for no apparent reason (though if I were Adèle I’d have been driven off by his pompousness years before: I probably wouldn’t even have married him). Jill marries an Italian Duke and has twins, but all three conveniently die in a plane crash leaving Boy to marry Jill, thus completing the circle of near-incestuous relations. Jonah doesn’t marry, but he did have a heavy affair with Adèle in at least one of the novels, so that’s OK. There’s nothing like keeping it in the family.

Yates 5You’ll have noticed that for such a scenario to be accepted by readers, realism is not part of the deal. This set of characters live in a fantasy world based on Edwardian and Victorian nostalgia but set in a very glamorous present-day with fabulous cars and lovely houses. The stories are wish-fulfilment fantasies where the women are beautiful and obedient, and the men are witty and powerful. They all live on country estates, or move to France when the weather, the Labour government and income tax make life unbearable. The characters are ageless. Their servants are almost all silent and obedient. Jonah’s servants loyally risk their lives in every book they appear in. Their friends all marry and are beautiful. These friends do not include anyone who is not white, English, or American, from the gentry class and upwards. Children simply do not happen, apart from Jill’s twins, and, as I said, they’re killed off early. Yates must have realised that her children were simply not a plausible part of Jill’s life, since she routinely left them with the ducal nurse in another country while she spent long summers with her cousins doing nothing but have adventures and fall about laughing. One can see the appeal, of course, but it is a bit of a shock when Yates disposes of toddlers so callously. He does this in the thrillers as well, to get rid of a hard-won wife so his hero can start the flirting game all over again. The winning of the women must have been much more fun to write than life with a wife. When you read Dornford Yates you are certainly reading high-quality entertainment, but you are also reading a curious variety of fantasy fiction where the values of the present are consistently inferior to a very selective view of chivalry and romance.

Yates 3So, this novel is called Adèle and Co. I recommend it to you not just because it is screamingly funny in many episodes, or because the action sequences are nail-biting and brilliantly told. I think it is an excellent Yates taster, a good way to try him out. You can experience the full glory of Berry’s outrageous behaviour, Boy’s driving, and Jonah’s tactical planning. There is an audacious theft of fabulous jewels; there is a terrifying master villain; there is a fascinating scene in a thieves’ bar called The Wet Flag where Jonah enquires about some missing emerald bracelets and is told, ‘Sweaty knows them cuffs’. There are also some immortal sequences: where Boy and Berry case a joint and have scatologically foul water thrown at them from above; where Berry is forced to entertain a bishop for three hours unaided; and where Berry, Boy and Piers dress up in drag with crude make-up to diddle a villain. We are given exciting racing scenes in the Normandy countryside, where cars are hijacked, and dips in the road give cover to rapid changeovers. An incriminating letter is found in a hollow tree, and is joined by a wasps’ nest, which makes the later retrieval of the latter quite difficult. We do a lot of sightseeing in the northern Pyrenees, where the dips in the road allow traps to be set and more showdowns to take place. The novel is a riot of journeys and witty conversations, and an awful lot of white-knuckled driving.

Yates 4Underlying all this action are the fascinating social norms of the day. Boy, Berry and Jonah are desperately chivalric towards women, and the women are perpetually dainty, well-turned out and plucky. The women also have glorious hair, huge eyes, and tiny feet which are perfectly shod. Yates had a particular thing about small feet and grey eyes in his heroines. Not being properly dressed was a dangerous situation in many of the stories, since this would risk social chaos. The laws of hospitality are extremely important. In Adèle and Co the principal crime of the villain, Casca Palk, is not that he engineered the theft of the women’s jewels and the men’s cuff-links, but that he was offered hospitality by these women and repaid them by taking the jewels off their necks. Somehow it wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d merely stolen the jewels from the bank: the fact that the thief was in the women’s private sitting-room, and that the thief’s hands had been around their necks, makes Yates incandescently angry. In the Yates world, the physical violation of women, even by just a touch or a look, was a more serious crime than murder. In a later novel, Perishable Goods, Adèle has been kidnapped, and Jonah leads her rescue party. As a reminder that time is getting on and that the ransom hasn’t been paid, Adèle’s hair is sent to Boy in a box. When her white blouse is offered (and it would be white, wouldn’t it?) as a more urgent reminder of the ransom, Jonah hangs the man who brought it. His servants dig the grave. Yates’ characters played for keeps, and had no compunction when they thought they were in the right in terms of their own rules of civilisation. When Yates wanted to circumvent the law as well, he just invented a new country and their laws as well.

Yates 6One of the joys of reading Yates is his spectacular inventiveness with names. He invents personal names that not so much suggest that person’s character, but wave that person’s character around on a banner. His heroes and heroines all have old English names suggesting antiquity, royalty, heritage, medieval values, and country manors. Their names are Bagot, Festival, Madrigal, Crecy, Fairie, Willoughby, Malory, Persimmon, Bohun, Rage, Medallion, Pendragon, Pomeroy and Seneschal. The names of characters of whom he does not want us to approve are similarly descriptive: Pump, Mrs Drinkabeer Stoat, and Warthog. His place names are even less restrained, and are mostly heavy-handed metaphors for a similar ancientry, including Holy Brush, Chancery, White Ladies, Hammercloth Down, Castle Breathless, Peering Gap, Garter Spinney, Stomacher Gap, Sweeting Valley and Witchery Drive. It’s very heady stuff.

One caveat before you plunge into Yates: in revisiting the 1920s, you are also leaving the cultural value system of the twenty-first century and entering a different world, where racism, anti-Semitism and sexism was a completely normal part of the cultural environment. Every writer of that period thought and wrote in those terms, to a greater or lesser degree: you simply can’t avoid it, and it is incorrect to demand the standards of our day to fiction written nearly 100 years ago. Yates is no better than most of his contemporaries, by our standards, and he is certainly not the worst. But if you’re not used to this kind of thing, you may need to take a deep breath before diving in. Just don’t shoot the messenger.

 

Terror of the tyrannical wife, in Dornford Yates’s This Publican

the cover of the first edition: the language of finger positions
the cover of the first edition, using the language of the expressive hand

For the full horror of an evil woman using class and sex warfare you might consider trying Dornford Yates’s magnificently toe-curling novel, This Publican, from 1938, which I podcasted about a few years ago. Its villain Rowena is the most loathsome woman character I’ve ever read, but it is faintly possible that she could be read differently through a feminist perspective, had the author left any room for us to see past his patriarchal loathing. She was invented to represent all that Yates hated about women who don’t follow the rules, who manipulate men, and who attack men’s honour where it hurts: at the club. This Publican is one of the strongest expressions of Yates’s determination to maintain class and sex boundaries in his many, many novels and short stories, by making his characters examples of how to behave, and how not to behave. Thus the worst of these feature evil wives and soft husbands.

An earlier Yates novel, showing the proper concerns of his characters
An earlier Yates novel, showing the proper concerns of his characters

Yates was a marvellous writer, a great stylist, a master of light comic fiction and epicly tense thrillers of the quest romance, but this novel is not one of those best-selling forms. This Publican (I’ll explain the title in a moment) is one of Yates’s psychological thrillers, where the tension is increased, chapter by chapter, as the reader wonders how long someone decent can endure the torments inflicted by an intolerable situation, or an intolerable person. The details of why such a situation or person is intolerable vary from book to book, but there are some common factors. The hero is always a gentleman: this is non-negotiable. Yates’s ideal protagonist is the gentleman ex-officer, who likes dogs, and is the epitome of honour. Other common factors are a perfect and pure heroine with small feet and grey eyes, who also likes dogs; examples of the suffering nobility, either the landed aristocracy forced to clean their own shoes through no fault of their own, or an honest gentleman forced to work in an office; and fast cars. Apart from the dogs, all of these are in This Publican.

a more conventional illustration of the parable
a more conventional illustration of the parable

The title will not be obvious to many readers now, as it’s a phrase from the Bible now normally modernised: Luke 18, 10-11. A Pharisee and a publican (in modern versions a tax-gatherer, a distasteful person doing a hated job) go to the Temple, and the Pharisee thanks God that he is better than other men, especially this awful publican, whereas the publican asks for mercy for being a sinner. The publican is acquitted of his sins and the Pharisee isn’t, because those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted. So the title of the book is a reference to modesty and pride, but even in Yates’s day the phrase ‘this publican’ would have been a puzzler for those not accustomed to reading the Bible or attending church every week.

Yates’s American publishers certainly balked at the title: in the USA the novel was called The Devil in Satin, which shows the difference in expectations of the story between Yates’ British and American readers. The puzzle remaining is, just who is the publican: the evil Rowena, or the saintly David, her persecuted husband?

no dustjacket image exists, as far as i know, but the spine illustration here is nicely indicative
no dust-jacket image exists for The Devil in Satin, as far as I know, but the spine illustration here is nicely indicative

Lord Eldon makes a codicil to his will, a day before he dies. Half his fortune is to be set aside for a detective to hunt down evidence of wrong-doing by a beautiful low-class orphan from the stage who has married his heir, the honest and dependable lawyer David Bohun. Lord Eldon does this because she reminds him of a wicked perjurer he had convicted 20 years before, and ‘those alike in body are alike in mind’. Rowena Bohun is thus revealed as a bad ‘un right from the start: Eldon calls her ‘a brilliant vampire, who knows no law but that of her own desires, who’s clever as sin, whose heart is of frozen iron’. She is a murderer and a fraud, a gold-digger climbing her way to the top of society. Money is not her particular interest: she wants social acceptance, and her final goal is to be a widowed countess. Now, who could not want to read on, if only to watch Rowena get her comeuppance?

Naturally, Rowena has an antithesis, Helen, a saintly heroine who risks her own happiness and reputation to protect David, whom she loves and who loves her. Helen has to be invented, to give David hope, since Rowena is otherwise crushing him into submission by crossing class and sex boundaries, the lowest that anyone can sink in Yates’ idealised world. Yates doesn’t excuse David all of his suffering: he quite clearly thinks that men who are too soft on their women only deserve the trouble they receive. David is one of Yates’ inarticulate heroes, the man who is too much of a gentleman (in the Yates sense) to ever say no to his wife simply because she is his wife: he thinks that this is how gentlemen behave. Yates, of course, knows better: wives are to be instructed and have to obey, and so Rowena as a terrible example of what happens to marriages where the man is not fully in control of his wife. David allows himself to be fooled by Rowena because he is too much of a gentleman. The appalling situation that he sinks into through the machinations of his wife is partially his own fault, because he refuses to take action until it is too late.

wicked, wicked Rowena in 1950s cocktail party reiteration
wicked, wicked Rowena, talking to low men in this 1950s cocktail party reiteration

So what does this she-devil actually do? Rowena gets David to dismiss his aged servants, and then tells them that she couldn’t persuade David to keep them on. Quite apart from the sneaky placing of blame on David’s shoulders, this is an offence against the master-servant relationship, another important foundation stone in the perfect society according to Yates: masters protect their servants for life. Rowena takes David to parties that he doesn’t really want to attend, and leaves with low company whom a lady should not even notice, thus shaming David in the eyes of the other guests. She insists on him taking her to the south of France where she neglects and ignores him, and mixes, again, with low company. She is fluent in French but David can’t understand it because it is gutter French, not the French of a lady. So not only is he isolated by his wife, and isolated from other people because he can’t speak French, he doesn’t even understand that Rowena’s French is shameful to him as her husband. You can feel the shuddering of Yates’ original readers from here.

Rowena encourages David to fall in love with Helen, so she will be able to divorce him as the innocent plaintiff, thus ruining the reputations of Helen and David. Divorce in the late 1930s was not quite the social death that Yates liked to think it was, but he was by this time writing in a warped fantasy mode exacerbated by his own recent divorce, and is insisting on public pillorying for innocent parties. Rowena would then be free to marry the dull but rich Lord Juliot, who will die soon after, leaving her all his money, but more importantly, his title. When David leaves Rowena, but does not divorce her, she calls, uninvited, at his club, which is now his only refuge, and causes a scene designed to ensure that everyone pities her and will despise him. She clings to him begging him to return to her, she weeps on the floor, she behaves so heartbreakingly, and so cleverly, to make it seem as if she is the abandoned innocent wife. David resigns from his club next day, and has effectively been thrown out of polite society. However, we must not forget the parallel plot, of the lawyer instructed secretly to find out all about Rowena’s past and bring her to justice. This is the only relief for the reader, since the episodes of lies and blackmailing by Rowena are paralleled, without her knowledge, by the discovery of new and interesting pieces of information about her past.

Dornford Yates
Dornford Yates

It all ends in the divorce court, where, among other exciting revelations in a cliff-hanger ending, Rowena is found to have an Argentinian lover living somewhere near Potter’s Bar. He is also Jewish, and a dress designer: Yates clearly could not imagine anything worse. Although the ending is not quite as happy as it could be, since so much social damage has been done to David and Helen, Yates has made it absolutely clear how women may, and may not, behave, and how men must behave to secure the happiness and orderly running of society. Rowena is a magnificent weapon of social terrorism to warn Yates’s readers of the evils in store if society were allowed to degenerate any further.

 

 

Dornford Yates’s Gale Warning

Gale WarningThis podcast was written for the miniseries ‘Thrillers for Gentlemen’. I was looking at the kind of thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal, written about men of a certain generation who understood the value of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules. Fascinatingly, women were huge fans of Dornford Yates as well, and women’s magazines serialised his novels.

I couldn’t decide, originally, which one of Dornford Yates’s clubland thrillers of the 1930s to go for, so in the end I just took one from the shelf at random: Gale Warning, from 1939. The thing about Yates’s thrillers is that they are rather all the same. They have the same elements: the same impeccable handling of tension and plot twist, the same use of language, the same treatment of villains, and women, and heroes. But yet they are distinguishable. If I had told any one of the members of the Dornford Yates Yahoo group that this podcast was to be about the one where Plato put his hand down Audrey’s shirt and got in the way of a paperweight, they’d know exactly which one I meant. Each Yates thriller has its defining moments, and they are usually to do with the moment when something has changed the atmosphere, someone has acted in a way that has changed the plan.

Gale Warning (1939) begins with a classic Yates jolt to the stomach, a twist in the hero’s personal fortune that is designed to show you his character, and the kind of world he moves in, without doing anything so clumsy as ‘telling’. The narrator, John Bagot, lost his parents young, and thus also lost his home, since his father’s job as land agent came with the house. His best friend George offers him the job he was ‘bred’ to take up, as a land agent. Note: Yates uses the vocabulary of animal breeding in relation to the natural aristocracy that his characters represent. So if anyone in his books is described in terms of the studbook, you know that he expects you to approve of them, and to emulate their actions.

Dornford Yates
Dornford Yates

So John is offered a job as land agent by George, who is the Earl of St Omer, on his estate, which is called Peerless. Sorry, another note: Yates’ noble characters are often seriously noble, or ridiculously antique in their lineage. He invents titles with no discrimination at all, using the most outrageous nouns as proper names for estates and families. These are deviously manipulative in their emotional effect on the reader. If an estate is called ‘Peerless’ the reader knows immediately not only that it is the best of its kind, but also that it is inhabited by antique gentry who use antique vocabulary, indicating that they come of a very long line of descent, and that that automatically makes them good.

So John now has a job that he will take up in six months’ time. He is grateful, and determined to do the best for George and Peerless, so he decides to blow all his savings on a training course in the technical aspects of his profession. He can’t start the job any sooner because the agent currently in place has been given six months’ notice after being caught stealing. George won’t sack him immediately because that would wreck the man’s future: that’s the kind of man George is. The six months pass, and George sends John a telegram to invite him for dinner at Scott’s in London, to celebrate the start of their association. John arrives at the restaurant first, orders a newspaper, and sees on the front page the announcement of George’s death in a road accident en route to London. So now he has no job, he’s lost his best friend, and he only has 20 pounds left in the world because he’s spent his savings on the land agent training. Up, down, up, down. That’s how Yates constructs the first four pages of the first chapter.

John hears a man at the restaurant door asking if there is an alcove table, and gets up to vacate his own, since there is now no point in his staying. When he pauses at the restaurant door to button his coat against the wet night (actually it’s a ‘rough, wet night’: Yates uses metaphors like confetti to point up the messages of emotional melodrama), he is stopped by the man who had spoken, who knows exactly who he is, and who also knew George. This is Jonathan Mansel, Yates’ great thriller hero, and now that he is on the stage (another Yatesian trope: he does like to present his novels as populated by actors in a staged setting), the audience can settle down knowing exactly who is in charge, and enjoy the ride.

berryandMansel is Captain Mansel, so we know he is of impeccable bravery and has gentleman thriller qualities because he is an ex-officer. Any ex-officer in a Yates novel is automatically good, and a hero as well. It’s not a debateable point, and it can be quite reassuring to know these fixed points of certainty in the shady world of crooks and villainy without the law that Yates writes about. Jonathan, or Jonah, Mansel is also one of the Berry crowd, the strange, incestuously connected group of cousins who all live together in an infantilised world of devastatingly light humour (one day I will post the podcast that I wrote about them, in Adele & Co). Mansel is the hard man of that group, and called Jonah there, since they are all cousins together, but in the thrillers he is Mansel, as befits his commanding officer status. In the thrillers, Mansel is strong, stern and utterly in control. He’s also, technically, a criminal because his speciality is taking the law into his own hands. He keeps doing this, in book after book, because in Yates’ view, the police are useless, and vigilantism is the only way to deliver a good thriller. Mansel is friends with all the top policemen so he can call on them when he (very rarely) needs a safety net, but this is not always possible, and going ‘without’ the law is always his favourite option.

adele and coNow that Mansel has taken over the plot of Gale Warning, John can relax too. Naturally he is distraught about George, and is pathetically glad to be invited to join Mansel’s private vigilante scheme to kill the man who ordered George’s murder. It was a revenge attack for the foiling of a high-profile burglary of jewels that were stripped from the women’s necks at a private house party at which Royal personages were present. Here again we have some favourite Yatesian moments. Jewels are always more attractive than money as treasure, because money smacks of trade (not conducive for a gentleman), and jewels are shiny. Jewels are also usually around the naked body parts of women, and Yates takes enormous, lingering pleasure in ensuring that we can picture the scenes in which jewels are stripped (and they would be ‘stripped’, wouldn’t they?) from such arms or necks, because the threatened violation of women in a Yates novel is the one thing that will ensure the rapid and summary death of any villain, especially if Mansel is involved. Murders along these lines happen quite often in Yates’ thrillers. In Gale Warning the scene where the villain actually lays his hand on the woman’s skin is described in full to the reader: Yates wants us to feel pleasurably excited and also outraged. He had strong views about the rightful ownership and possession of women in his own life as well as in his fiction: he would not have been a pleasant man to know, I feel.

So George, Mansel and Mansel’s great friend and fellow thriller hero Richard Chandos, foiled this jewel robbery, and its organiser arranged for George’s murder in revenge, telling Mansel that he and Chandos were going to be next. So naturally Mansel takes the offensive, and offers John the job of helping avenge George. Enter another player: George’s fiancée, Lady Audrey Nuneham. (Pause for another note: Audrey is the daughter of a duke or earl, since she uses her title with her first name. This makes her of the correct rank to marry an Earl, in Yates’s eyes, though any lady could marry a peer.) Audrey is a classic high-spirited, proud and sharp-tongued Yates heroine, who routinely says vicious things to the man she will eventually marry. She will be humbled by his devotion, and his ability to take all her tongue-lashing meekly, and she will be described in animal terms. She will be schooled, and brought to heel, in the most humiliatingly subservient, abased vocabulary, because Yates does enjoy giving out a good dose of abasement. His characters exist to glory in their hierarchies of value in relation to each other. They worship each other’s good qualities and praise each other in simple, soldierly steady-eyed English. Sometimes it’s all too much, too baroque and too selfless.

a late Dornford Yates novel from the 1950s, whose title tells you all you need to know about his views of the lower classes
a late Dornford Yates novel from the 1950s, whose title tells you all you need to know about his views of the lower classes

Gale Warning continues to relate the hunting down of the first link in the chain of people who will lead Mansel & Co to Barrabbas, the criminal mastermind behind all the nastiness. We have some excellent episodes tracking the first man down in the City of London (some classic interwar City of London crime and trailing scenes here), and then a very long and seriously iconic episode of Yates writing about cars, and mapping, and navigation in northern France. We have the tense moments of closing in the prey, the recce, the tests of endurance, the stomach-jolting shock of surprise, aeons of high tension, the attack, and then the careful wiping away of the blood. It is marvellous stuff, nail-biting, and gentlemanly to the core. Also vicious, high-handed, chauvinist, rule-bound, and arrogant. It all depends how much you can take at one sitting.

 

 

John Buchan’s The Three Hostages

Three HostagesThis podcast script was written for a miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen. I was looking at the thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal; written about, and possibly also for, men of a certain generation who understood the ethos of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules. I’m not saying that way of life would work nowadays, but for its time, these standards are very attractive. These thrillers are tough, but with good manners. I’ll be posting the companion podcasts in future weeks, on Dornford Yates, Geoffrey Household, John Welcome and Ian Fleming.

I’ve been writing about John Buchan since the 1980s. I started reading Buchan as a schoolgirl, and started researching him before I took my first degree, and was given my PhD for my thesis on his fiction. I edited the John Buchan Journal for eleven years, and I’ve published – among many other things –  three books on his writing. I’ll be wittering on about him on a Radio 4 programme sometime in summer 2015 (I was on a Radio 3 programme about him in 2014), and I’ll be giving the Caledonian Club lecture on his writing on September 2015.  I do try to wean myself off researching him, but it’s hard. Buchan’s writing is so rich, intriguing and entertaining, I think I’ll never stop working on him.

Buchan is best known as being the creator of Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps. The Three Hostages is his fourth Hannay novel, in which the now rather stuffy and middle-aged Sir Richard encounters a modern night club and an Indian guru at Claridges on his quest to rescue three innocent hostages from a ruthless and unknown megalomaniac.

greenmantleThe year is 1923, and Hannay is just beginning to relax. He’s come a long way from being a beat-up engineer from South Africa. Only a few weeks after his arrival in Britain in 1914, he was on the run, wanted by the police for a murder he did not commit, and by a secret gang of spies for a little black book he’d taken off the body of the man they murdered, and left in his flat. Naturally, for he is super-resourceful and a terrific getter-out of trouble, Hannay solves the mystery of the thirty-nine steps, and saves his neck. His next adventure was a year or two later, in the First World War, where he led a daring mission to find out what the Germans were planning in Constantinople, and to stop it. That was in the novel Greenmantle. A year or two after that, in Mr Standfast, Hannay was solving another mystery for the War Office, chasing German spies up and down Scotland and into Switzerland, changing disguise roughly every five pages, and finding the girl of his dreams as well.

actor David Robb as Hannay, in the 2010 BBC radio version of The Three Hostages
actor David Robb as Hannay, in the 2010 BBC radio version of The Three Hostages

Now its peacetime, and he has a knighthood, a wife, a son, and a country estate. He’s been walking around the woods and fields, checking up on his land, and planning the alterations that need doing before the summer. It’s spring, and all is at peace. Except, that, of course, the world is not at peace. The war may have ended, but mysterious international masterminds who have emerged from the war madder, and badder, than before, are planning to unleash economic chaos onto a war-torn Europe. To keep the authorities off their backs, they’ve taken hostages: a young man, a young woman, and a little boy. These three will be killed unless the gang is left alone, and naturally this can’t be allowed to happen. Hannay has become a bit of a fixer for the government and the police, so his task for this novel is to find the hostages against a ticking clock. He has no idea where to start.

This is a novel set in the heart of 1920s urban civilisation. Very little of the novel’s action happens in the countryside, except for the gripping ending on crags in the Scottish Highlands. I think that was only put in because Buchan wanted a man-hunt to end the novel. In this novel we explore areas of the city with Hannay, as he roams London’s seedy underbelly looking for clues in a landscape he doesn’t really understand: places like Gospel Oak and Fitzrovia, which are now very respectable and rather smart places to live, but in the 1920s were really pretty run-down, haunts of the disaffected and home to those struggling not to drift down any further in the social scale.

borrowed from the Jazz Age Club site
borrowed from the Jazz Age Club site

Buchan creates an atmosphere of London’s sad decay, and war-damaged poverty. In the nightclub scenes, he surpasses himself. This place is so fashionable that it’s positively shabby. Hannay is taken there by Archie, his bright young friend who can’t dance any more due to a war wound, but wants to see the latest fashions and to see again where the beautiful people dance. They’re a bit fish out of water, these pillars of the establishment, as they sit sipping overpriced liqueurs in their dinner jackets, watching bored-looking people jigging around on a tiny dancefloor. Archie spots only one dancer really worth watching, but Hannay is more concerned about her minder, a tough-looking customer whom he recognises, because he’d seen this man only the day before as the butler in the house of a very important and influential politician. Other people also wander about the book in disguise. There’s the Indian guru, who comes to Claridges to hold court, to receive his acolytes, and to grant a private audience with a very important man, which Hannay witnesses, horrified at the evil he can sense seeping out from the guru’s soul. When Hannay sees this guru again, he tries to attack him, but is brought up short when the guru tosses his turban back as a deflecting weapon, and is revealed as … well, I won’t tell you. You’ll have to read the book yourself.

Hannay flies to Norway to track down another hostage, and sees not one but two people he really did not expect to encounter. There’s a man whom he last saw in a Harley St consulting room, giving Hannay medical advice. There’s also a man whom Hannay last saw in Constantinople during the war, a German whom Hannay rather liked, and now finds that he can trust implicitly. This is rather hopeful, that only five years after the end of the war, Buchan can write comfortably about making friends with a former enemy, and trust in the inherent goodness of people.

Hannay’s first ally is his own country neighbour Dr Greenslade, who gives him the first solution to the clues that the criminal mastermind is scattering about. But Greenslade, after this first strong showing, is oddly kept in the background for the rest of the novel. Hannay has another great ally, Sandy Arbuthnot from Greenmantle, aristocrat, clubman, adventurer and scholar. He too is a wasted character in this novel because he spends most of his time off-stage, hunting down references in the Bibliotheque Nationale and avoiding assassination. It’s as if Buchan’s roster of characters was so rich, he could afford to throw inventions capable of carrying a whole novel into a one-chapter walk-one role. Would that all novelists were so bountiful in their invention.

the well-known Australian cake, the Lamington, probably unknown to Buchan
the well-known Australian cake, the Lamington, probably unknown to Buchan

Hannay’s most important ally is his own wife, Lady Hannay, formerly Mary Lamington of the secret service, and one of the first women secret agents of the 1920s. And she’s a wasted character as well, after The Three Hostages is finished, because, after a tremendous showing in Mr Standfast, and this last burst of professional expertise in The Three Hostages, she is reduced to domestic roles for the remaining Hannay novels; feeding people tea, and being a hostess. She could have been so good, a marvellous role model for women hoping to enter the secret services, for women willing and able to leave Foreign Office desks for a life of subterfuge and disguise. But, of course, all that will not wash. Mary Lamington was created 50 years too early. She would have been a fascinating handler for Modesty Blaise (imagine that: all-female secret service agents in the 1960s), and she would have skewered James Bond with a single glance. She was born to circulate in high society as a secret agent (Lady Penelope!), but Buchan marries her off to the stuffiest traditionalist clubman in his books, and leaves her in country isolation.

At least she gets a terrific final show. In The Three Hostages, Mary makes Hannay take the job on by using emotional blackmail, and she rescues two of the three hostages herself. She play-acts as a foolish and silly mother to prevent the villain even noticing her, and she carefully does not let her husband know what she is doing, because if he did know he would only stop her. Hannay, as a hearty ex-soldier and a fine English gentleman, has rather, shall we say, traditional views about women. I feel sure that Mary Hannay would have used her vote in the 1919 general election. She simply ignores what Hannay might say, returns to her professional training, and just gets the job done.

There is much vigorous masculinity in this novel: the all-male lunches, clubs and dinners; the female-free household of the evil mastermind; the rugged 30-mile walks that Dr Greenslade takes for relaxation; and the classic Buchan Highland stalking and shooting episode that ends the novel. Two of the hostages have undergone demasculinisation, which Hannay and Mary have to try to reverse, and the girl hostage is rescued by her very masculine fiancé, which helps soothe his injured pride. But no-one’s masculinity is more secure than Hannay’s, since he simply never thinks he can be anything other than what he is, unlike the nervy and sensitive Sandy Arbuthnot, or the unexpectedly diffident Archie Roylance, anxious about women now he has a nasty limp from the war. Hannay is a tough old buffalo, and cares not two hoots, especially now that he is married and the father of a son.

Do read this novel: it’s packed with good things, and is wonderful entertainment. I know from experience that even if The Three Hostages is one of only three novels that you have on a two-month archaeological dig, pre-internet and far away from any other sources of reading, it will keep you sane.