Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE THREE HOSTAGES” John Buchan (first published in 1924)

Let me be really cunning here. I know that this “Something Old” section is based on the assumption that something “worth reading” may well have been written many years ago, and is not necessarily hot off the press. But there are many ways in which something can be “worth reading”. It may be “worth reading” not because it has any great literary merit, but because it is an interesting period piece, revealing to modern readers defunct attitudes and values.

This, at any rate, is how I justify considering a novel I read a couple of years back. I’m put in mind of it by looking at Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist this week. Like The Hypnotist, John Buchan’s 87-year-old thriller The Three Hostages involves both hypnotism and kidnapping. And, again like The Hypnotist, it reveals the values, attitudes and tastes of the readership of its age.

The Three Hostages was the fourth of John Buchan’s five thrillers starring his secret agent and adventurer Richard Hannay. He began the series in 1915 with The 39 Steps, which is still the best-known of the series.

In The Three Hostages, a fiendish international hypnotist, and arch-enemy of the British Empire, sets up the kidnapping of three people for purposes of blackmail and international intrigue. Heroic Hannay springs into action. Some of it takes place in the wilds of Norway, but the climax has the hero being stalked by the villain in the  Scottish Highlands, a landscape dearer to the Scots author’s heart.

I am definitely not recommending this novel to readers of modern thrillers. To be blunt, much of the action creaks and there are obvious improbabilities. I could not suspend my disbelief even as I read it. I found myself asking such logical questions as – If the villains are supposed to be the world’s greatest hypnotists, how come they can’t hypnotise the hero or his French buddy in crucial scenes? Why, at a certain point, are these master criminals unable to see that an “Indian” is actually a British secret agent in blackface disguise? Having captured the hero, why do they later let him go with a loaded revolver in his pocket? (Hadn’t they heard of frisking in 1924?) Why, except for the fact that John Buchan wants to set up his plot, do the villains bother to send the hero a jingling rhyming code that helps him crack the case?

And so on, and so on.

It really is too easy to pick The Three Hostages apart in this way, and to notice how often John Buchan sets up elaborate atmospheric scenes to avoid addressing the illogicalities of his own plot.

But what really kept me reading was the revelation of all the author’s dated prejudices. In the world of The Three Hostages, the enemies of the British Empire are a bunch of subversive Indians, ungrateful Irish hobbledehoys, “niggers” (Buchan’s term) and sinister foreigners including Bolshevik Jews. Any moves against the British Empire are represented as irrational moves against “decency”. They must be irrational – and hence in this novel are related to the mystifications of hypnotism - because the British Empire is so self-evidently the noblest institution yet devised by man. Anyone who wishes to leave it must be either mad or bad, and probably both.

Naturally it never occurs to Buchan that in 1924, when he was writing, there were many Indians, Irish, Africans and others who had excellent reason to be restive under British rule.

To put it bluntly, the Scots Presbyterian British imperialist author panders to all the paranoia of  conservative British imperialists in this novel. They, after all, were his target audience.

I know that the sort of observation I am making here is sometimes rejected as  making heavy weather of something that is simply intended as a piece of harmless fun. Surely writers of thrillers have to get their villains from somewhere? Suggesting who the villains are is merely an excuse to set a rattling good yarn in motion. It’s like the “MacGuffin” in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Besides, need we pillory authors of a past age for expressing opinions that were then just common currency?

I’ve seen these arguments and others proposed on-line by members of the Buchan Society as they defend their hero from charges of racism, anti-Semitism and so on.

But I am only half-convinced.

Thrillers, like children’s books, always do imply a set of values. Certainly I make allowances for dated attitudes in old books; but I would say that even in 1924, perceptive writers were above the type of crude stereotypes in which Buchan indulges. Buchan isn’t anywhere near as crude as the crypto-Fascist, and definitely anti-Semitic, antics of his contemporary “Sapper’s” Bulldog Drummond thrillers. But it must still give us pause to realize that the assumptions of The Three Hostages were the assumptions of a man who held high administrative office in the British Empire. (Buchan was at various times an MP, secretary to the High Commissioner for South Africa, and Governor-General of Canada).

This is why I draw The Three Hostages to your attention. It is not a great read, but it is a window into how influential and powerful people once thought. It must be the historian in me that thinks it “worth reading”. 

Footnote - In a biography of Alfred Hitchcock, I read that the great director preferred The Three Hostages to Buchan’s first – and most famous – Richard Hannay thriller The 39 Steps, which he had had completely re-written and directed with great success in 1935. For years Hitchcock collaborated with various people in trying to turn The Three Hostages into a filmable screenplay. But he was never able to overcome the fact that plots based on hypnotism look very unconvincing when acted out on screen. I wonder if anyone seeking to film The Hypnotist will run up against the same problem?

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