Buchan of the Month/Book Review: The Dancing Floor by John Buchan

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20190607_101841About the Book

Vernon Milburne, orphaned since childhood and haunted by a recurring dream, is friends with the protective lawyer and MP, Sir Edward Leithen. An Aegean cruise takes them to the mysterious island of Plakos, where Vernon is fascinated by the island’s myths. Local superstitions turn to menace as Vernon’s encounter with a beautiful woman results in obsession and adventure.

Format: Paperback (258 pp.)    Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Published: 1961 [1926]   Genre: Mystery

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Find The Dancing Floor on Goodreads


My Review

The Dancing Floor is the sixth 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 Dancing Floor here.

As I mentioned in my introduction to the book, John Buchan first explored the idea for the novel in a supernatural short story called ‘Basilissa’ published in Blackwood’s Magazine in April 1914. The story was inspired by a cruise John Buchan and his wife, Susan, made in the company of friend Gerard Craig Sellar in 1910. Later Buchan expanded his short story to novel length, adding the character Sir Edward Leithen, who had first appeared in The Power-House. The novel sees Leithen and the young man he befriends, Vernon Milburne, make a similar voyage during which they stop at the (invented) island of Plakos.

Structured in three sections, the first part of the book sees Sir Edward Leithen become acquainted with two young people, Vernon Milburne, and Kore Arabin, both of whom turn to him for help. Initially, Leithen is sceptical about the significance of Vernon’s recurring dream. He also finds himself disinclined to help Kore, finding her aloof and arrogant. (Slim and boyish, she is somewhat of a typical John Buchan heroine.) However, Leithen’s feelings change as he learns more about her situation and the danger she faces – and is determined to confront – on the island of Plakos.

The second part of the book involves Leithen’s arrival on the island and attempts to gain entry to the house where Kore has found herself imprisoned by the superstitious and vengeful locals. The house is the site of unspecified evil, immoral deeds carried out by Kore’s father and grandfather, for which the villagers seek revenge. The final part centres on events from Vernon’s point of view and the book’s dramatic conclusion, coinciding with the Christian festival of Easter and ancient pagan rituals for the arrival of Spring.

In The Dancing Floor, Buchan explores some familiar themes such as the conflict between sacred and pagan, reason and superstition, civilization and anarchy. For example, at one point, Leithen describes feeling himself on ‘the razor-edge of life’. The Greek concept of ‘temenos’, a sacred place reserved for worship of ancient gods or pagan rituals, embodied in this case by the Dancing Floor, is also a feature.

I’m not sure I can be quite as enthusiastic as Buchan expert, Kate Macdonald, who argues The Dancing Floor demonstrates Buchan’s ‘complete mastery of plotting’. She praises the way the reader is ‘lulled into accepting absurd and impossible coincidences because of the need to know what happens next’. Admittedly my experience is coloured by having read the book before but, to me, the coincidences were just a little too unlikely, such as all the key players ending up in the same place at the same time, and in one case by pure chance. However, as you would expect from a Buchan novel, the story moves along at a swift pace and there is a particularly powerful scene in which Leithen and a comrade participate in the Greek Easter ritual through the silent, empty village whose inhabitants have deserted it to await events on the Dancing Floor.

‘We were celebrating but there were no votaries. The torches had gone to redden the Dancing Floor, sorrow had been exchanged for a guilty ecstasy, the worshippers were seeking another Saviour. Our rite was more than a commemoration, it was a defiance, and I felt like a man who carries a challenge to the enemy.’

July’s Buchan of the Month will be The Runagates Club. 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: Huntingtower or Witch Wood by John Buchan


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