The Three Hostages is the fifth book in my John Buchan reading project, Buchan of the Month 2019. You can find out more about the project and the books I read in 2018 here, and view my reading list for 2019 here.
What follows is a (spoiler-free) introduction to The Three Hostages. It is also an excuse to show my three different copies of the book: the original Hodder & Stoughton edition (sadly without dust jacket), the undated but later Nelson edition and the 1930 omnibus edition, The Four Adventures of Richard Hannay*, with its gorgeous dust jacket. I will be publishing my review of the book later in the month.
* there would later be a fifth Hannay story, The Island of Sheep
As with earlier Buchan novels, The Three Hostages first appeared in serial form in the UK, in The London Graphic between 5th April and 9th August 1924, immediately before its publication by Hodder & Stoughton on 12th August 1924. In the United States it was serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly before being published on 1st August 1924 by Houghton Mifflin, who had recently taken over as Buchan’s American publishers.
Like last month’s Buchan of the Month, Midwinter, The Three Hostages was written at Elsfield Manor, the country house in Oxfordshire John Buchan had purchased in 1919 as his family home. His first biographer, Janet Adam Smith, notes that Buchan recorded in his journal that The Three Hostages was finished in May 1923. It was the latest example of the now annual ‘new Buchan’ the public had come to expect for their summer holiday reading.
The first Hannay adventure set after the First World War, Janet Adam Smith argues that The Three Hostages ‘plays on widespread post-war fears and uncertainties, the concern at the shattering of old regimes, at the fragility of the new’. David Daniell sees it as a ‘contest of wits’ between Richard Hannay, plucked from his idyllic life at Fosse Manor (clearly a double for Elsfield) and an antagonist whom Daniell describes as Buchan’s ‘most Luciferian villain’.
Like his other adventure stories (or as Buchan termed them, his ‘shockers’) The Three Hostages enjoyed considerable commercial success. Janet Adam Smith reports that in the UK it sold just under 30,000 copies in its first year after publication and had combined sales by 1960 (for the Hodder & Stoughton edition and the later Nelson edition) of 216,000 copies. A further 175,000 copies of the Penguin paperback edition were sold between 1956 and 1964.
David Daniell, The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan (Nelson, 1975)
Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (OUP, 1985 )
Kenneth Hillier and Michael Ross, The First Editions of John Buchan: A Collector’s Illustrated Biography (Avonworld, 2008)