The first three Richard Hannay stories, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, and Mr. Standfast, follow Hannay’s career as a spy throughout WWI. But then there was no war, and so in the fourth, The Three Hostages, Hannay switches to private crime instead of espionage.
It has been several years since the events of Mr. Standfast. Sir Richard and Lady Hannay have a little boy, Peter John, and are happily settled at Fosse Manor in the Cotswolds. Inevitably, it is not long before Hannay hears from his old boss, Sir Walter Bulliviant. He will soon be on another case.
The children of three influential people have been kidnapped. A young man, a young woman, and a little boy, all vanished mysteriously without a trace, and their families have received a note with three lines of doggerel.
Hannay, with the help of a friend, cracks a few portions of the verse, and connects it to a man named Dominic Medina. Through Sandy Arbuthnot, he makes the acquaintance of Medina. That evening, Medina tries to hypnotize Hannay, who leaves him with the impression that he succeeded. It is not the case, however, and Hannay now must resort to being his guinea-pig and pretend to be under his influence if he is ever to find the three hostages. And fast, too, for Midsummer is coming. . .
A change from spying, private crime in The Hostages takes a psychic, somewhat sci-fi tone. I can’t claim to know anything about hypnotism; whatever the reality is, Buchan presents it as a plot device in the form of early mind control. (Sans computers, something like what Eugene Meltsner was working on in Adventures in Odyssey when he deletes his memory.)It must be taken into consideration that the study of psychology was yet in its infancy at the time. I believe that the forces of mentality hold some degree of power over human beings, and they ought to be handled with respect, so I wouldn’t dabble in it. Buchan, accordingly, presents it as anything but a light matter.
Can I say how much I adore the name Peter John? It makes me as happy as it pulls on my heartstrings. (I miss Peter Pienaar!)
The cast of characters in the Hannay stories expands with every new book and it is utterly sprawling by The Hostages, but as the reader has had plenty of time to get acquainted with them all, there is no trouble getting into the story and keeping track. This likely has something to do with the fact that it is first-person. Hannay’s POV keeps the narrative focused on the action and the only head hopping is clearly split into separate chapters or related omnisciently. On the same note, Buchan’s excellent writing won me over to first-person POV, which fell out of favor with me after I tried to read Twain. (Thanks a lot, Huck Fin.)
So first, Archie Roylance. I loved his part in Mr. Standfast, but I can’t say I approve of his patronizing shady nightclubs, even if it did play a part in the plot.
Mary’s role as a mother was so good, but she just sparkles as Dick’s assistant. When he first sees her with the Marquis de la Tour du Pin I turned the page expecting Hannay to be upset to some degree, ( and I was almost in agreement with him) but I must admit his response delighted me as much as it surprised me. It was refreshing, but I like how it was not on account that he didn’t care or that he had some outlandish notion about a woman’s role, but because he trusts her.
And then there is Gaudian, the German engineer from Greenmantle. Buchan was a great politician and mind; he served as the Governor of Canada. His great foresight shines through in the following quote:
Gaudian gave me a gristly picture of the condition of his own country. It seemed that the downfall of the old regime had carried with it the decent wise men like himself, who had opposed its follies, but had lined up with it on patriotic grounds when the war began. He said that Germany was no place for a moderate man, and that the power lay with the bloated industrials, who were piling up fortunes abroad while they were wrecking their country at home. The only opposition, he said, came from the Communists , who were half-witted, and the monarchists, who wanted the impossible.
“Reason is not listened to, and I fear there is no salvation till my poor people have passed through the last extremity.”
These observations made by Buchan through Gaudian’s character are no tired hindsight arguments; The Three Hostages was published in 1924.
There was a funny gap between the climax and the real ending. It was suspenseful, when it arrived and the close was sobering, but fascinating. (A ready knowledge of Scottish geographical terms would be to the reader’s advantage.) Buchan did an excellent job balancing a just end for the wrongdoer while preserving and justifying Hannay’s defense.
All in all, it is a smart read, and another exciting adventure, though I would approach it carefully in regards to its psychological bent. In addition to that, content includes a couple of nightclub scenes and some language.