Buchan of the Month/Book Review: The Three Hostages by John Buchan

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20190510_130630-1About the Book

After the war and newly knighted, Richard Hannay is living peacefully in the Cotswolds with his wife, Mary, and son, Peter John.

Unfortunately, a day arrives when three separate visitors tell him of three children being held hostage by a secret kidnapper. All three seem to lead back to a man named Dominick Medina, a popular Member of Parliament.

Hannay uncovers a dastardly plot involving hypnotism and the black arts, as well as the more earthly crimes of blackmail and profiteering.

Format: Hardcover (379 pp.)    Publisher: Thomas Nelson & Son
Published: [1924]   Genre: Crime, Mystery

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk  ǀ  Amazon.com
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find The Three Hostages on Goodreads

My Review

The Three Hostages is the fifth book in my Buchan of the Month reading project for 2019.  You can find out more about the project and my reading list for 2019 here.  You can also read my spoiler-free introduction to The Three Hostages here.

In The Three Hostages, John Buchan puts into the mouth of one of the characters (Dr. Greenslade) what was very likely his own recipe for creating his adventure stories (or what he termed his ‘shockers’).

“Look here. I want to write a shocker, so I begin by fixing on one or two facts which have no sort of connection… You invent a connection – simple enough if you have any imagination – and you weave all three into a yarn.  The reader, who knows nothing about the three at the start, is puzzled and intrigued and, if the story is well arranged, finally satisfied.  He is pleased with the ingenuity of the solution, for he doesn’t realise that the author fixed upon the solution first, and then invented a problem to suit it.’

Indulging in a further in-joke at his own expense, Buchan has Dr. Greenslade glance at the detective novel his friend, Hannay, has been reading and remarks, “I can read most things…but it beats me how you can waste time over such stuff.  These shockers are too easy, Dick.  You could invent better ones for yourself.’   As it happens, the three facts Greenslade gives as examples turn out to have more relevance than he initially realises and provide part of the key to the ensuing mystery.

What I particularly enjoyed about The Three Hostages is the prominent role given to Hannay’s wife, Mary (whom the reader – and Hannay – first encountered in Mr.Standfast).   John Buchan was not known for creating credible or positive female characters but I think Mary is the exception in this book.  She comes across as bright, brave and as equally adept at intrigue as her husband, as well as acting as his conscience.  It is Mary who encourages Hannay to take up the search for the three hostages when he is initially disinclined to get involved and sustains him with the thought of what is at stake when he becomes discouraged with progress.

In The Three Hostages, Buchan also has some interesting and quite prescient things to say about the power of propaganda, or what we might term today ‘fake news’.  At one point, Hannay’s old police chum, Macgillivray, remarks, ‘Dick, have you ever considered what a diabolical weapon [propaganda] can be – using all the channels of modern publicity to poison and warp men’s minds.  It is the most dangerous thing on earth. You can use it cleanly…but you can also use it to establish the most damnable lies.’  

The Three Hostages also sees the welcome return of other supporting characters from previous Hannay adventures, such as Sandy Arbuthnot and Archie Roylance.   Less attractive, certainly to modern day readers, is some of the crude racial stereotyping that Buchan puts into the thoughts of his character, Richard Hannay.  There is also use of the ‘n’ word in one particular scene that I found unpalatable.

Despite the reservations just mentioned, The Three Hostages is certainly an entertaining and well-paced mystery.  It builds to a dramatic final reckoning between Hannay and the villain on a Scottish mountainside, in which Buchan’s own knowledge of – and fondness for – mountaineering and deer-stalking is put to good use. All in all, the book is a great example of John Buchan’s ability to create an exciting story line.

June’s Buchan of the Month will be The Dancing Floor. Look out for my spoiler free introduction to the book shortly and my review towards the end of the month.

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Try something similar: Mr. Standfast by John Buchan (read my review here)

John BuchanAbout the Author

John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was an author, poet, lawyer, publisher, journalist, war correspondent, Member of Parliament, University Chancellor, keen angler and family man.  He was ennobled and, as Lord Tweedsmuir, became Governor-General of Canada.  In this role, he signed Canada’s entry into the Second World War.   Nowadays he is probably best known – maybe only known – as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps.  However, in his lifetime he published over 100 books: fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies, memoirs and history.

You can find out more about John Buchan, his life and literary output by visiting The John Buchan Society website.

buchan of the month 2019