Of all the Richard Hannay series this is the book I have returned to the most. The 39 Steps has always seemed to me a lightweight and readable spy thriller but little more. Greenmantle had something more to it, largely I think due to the addition of the circle of friends which would be a staple of the later books. Nonetheless, the plot developed along lines which fairly much had Richard Hannay and Peter Pienaar as men of action, albeit under cover. The Three Hostages is quite different, being more akin to a detective story and with its element of Eastern mysticism and mesmerism so popular among late Victorian writers. Richard Hannay is less of an action figure and is forced to play a (literally) subservient role.
Mr Standfast balances many of these different elements in one story. The story is set in wartime, opens with Hannay being taken out of active service and closes with his return to the frontline in a tense battle setting. But the story does not seem to be action-based at all in its first half. In fact, Hannay agrees to act the role of a pacifist objector, masquerading in a community of like-minded types. Now the prevailing view of pacifists and objectors at that time is very much summed up in Hannay’s attitude towards the people he’s forced to mix with. Not only are the members of this village community anti-war, but some of them affect an artistic lifestyle which Hannay’s military down-to-earthness can hardly stomach.
Whatever one’s views of war may be, one can hardly blame Buchan for writing according to the attitudes of his time. But even if one were to take him to task, it should be noted that none of his characters glory in war, except for the ill-fated and villainous Count von Schwabing. Rather they see it as a job to be done, and the sooner and more competently they do the job the better things will be. While Hannay’s contempt for conscientious objectors is apparent, the most outspoken of these, Lancelot Wake, has a noble and heroic role to play later on. And he manages to achieve an heroic death without sacrificing one iota of his principles. The introduction in this story of Mary Lamington, later to be Hannay’s wife, is a great stroke. In her character is combined an undoubted femininity with an equally undoubted courage, wit and intelligence. In Blenkiron’s famous phrase: “She can’t scare and she can’t spoil.” And she puts herself all but literally in the firing line for the cause she’s following. Here, and in The Three Hostages she shows herself to be a capable and active woman and yet a wife and mother.
The double-finale is perhaps a touch melodramatic and is just crying out to be made into a film. To the British ear and eye, the image of the mountain passes which separate European countries always has a certain romance to it (principally because we don’t have any ourselves). And here we have Hannay, desperate to reach Mary in time, driving through the night, only to find that he’s missed her, and taking Wake as his guide, climbing over the mountains in a blizzard to get back in time. And then the second finale on the battlefields of France when only the desperate courage of a solitary airman can save the day.
Certainly not everything in this book is going to please: Hannay’s view of native Africans is as provincial and perhaps imperial as any. In contrast to our contemporary fashion of playing up the vicissitudes of war with intimate first-person points of view, Buchan follows the fashion of his time in painting the war as an heroic and even noble battle against an evil enemy, while reserving respect and admiration for individual Germans. But for an eminently readable action-geared period piece, you could look quite a bit further and find a lot worse.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor fo the Good-to-Read website.