The House of the Four Winds is the tenth 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 with links to my reviews of the books I’ve read so far here.
What follows is a (spoiler-free) introduction to The House of the Four Winds. It is also an excuse to show off my 1942 Nelson edition of the book with its striking dust-jacket. I will be publishing my review of the book later this month.
The House of the Four Winds was published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton on 23rd July 1935 and by Houghton Mifflin in the United States on 25th July 1935. It is the third book to feature retired Glasgow grocer, Dickson McCunn, and continues his adventures that started in Huntingtower and later Castle Gay.
The setting for The House of the Four Winds is the fictional country of Evallonia. Buchan’s first biographer, Janet Adam Smith, ruefully notes that ‘Buchan is not at his best in the Anthony Hope [author of The Prisoner of Zenda] terrain of imaginary European states with princes, pretenders and disguises’. In fact, she goes on to describe the story as ‘on the feeble side’, regretting the absence of the ‘sharp little scenes and characters between the moments of melodrama’ that feature in other Buchan novels.
However, she does point out that 1934 was a year of intense industry for Buchan. As well as completing The House of the Four Winds, he wrote two works of non-fiction – Gordon at Khartoum and Cromwell – began the last Richard Hannay novel, The Island of Sheep, and started work on his book about George V, The King’s Grace. This at the same time as preparing for the move to Canada to take up the post of Governor-General. It was perhaps useful then, that he received a higher than usual advance for the book of £1,250.
Unfortunately, Janet Adam Smith is not the only critic to be less than impressed with The House of the Four Winds. David Daniell concedes it is not Buchan at his best although he does feel there ‘are striking images and scenes’. He notes that it features a parade of characters from previous books. This is a point taken up by Kate MacDonald who describes the book’s ‘crossover tendencies between the separate Buchan worlds’. She gives as examples the Lamanchas (from the Leithen novels), Jaikie Gait and Alison Westwater (from the previous Dickson McCunn books) and the Roylances, Janet and Archie (from, amongst others, The Courts of the Morning).
MacDonald also contends that Buchan was trying to make a serious point in the book about the dangers of amateurs dabbling in foreign affairs. [I believe we can all think of some contemporary examples of that.] She makes the case that, in extending the idea of the amateur hero of the thriller into the realities of 1930s politics, Buchan is ‘looking in the direction that Eric Ambler and Graham Greene would go’.
Whilst describing The House of the Four Winds as ‘probably JB’s worst novel’ and as ‘Ruritania without the charm’, Ursula Buchan, author of the recent biography Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan (and also Buchan’s granddaughter), does acknowledge the book’s ‘masterly dissection of 1930s angst about the growing menace of authoritarian regimes’ in Italy and Germany. She also provides the fascinating nugget of information that the book contains the first mention of ‘mole’, meaning an undercover agent, forty years before John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Go JB!
The House of the Four Winds Floor enjoyed reasonable but hardly outstanding commercial success. Janet Adam Smith reports that combined sales up to 1960 for the Hodder & Stoughton edition and later Nelson edition totalled 101,000 copies. The Penguin paperback edition contributed a further 84,000 sales up to June 1964.
To find out what I thought, look out for my review later this month.
Ursula Buchan, Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan (Bloomsbury, 2019)
David Daniell, The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan (Nelson, 1975)
Kate Macdonald, John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (McFarland, 2009)
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)