#BookReview The Gap in the Curtain by John Buchan @KateHandheld


I first shared my review of The Gap in the Curtain by John Buchan as part of my Buchan of the Month project in July 2020. Although I own a first edition of the book (unfortunately without a dustjacket) I couldn’t resist pre-ordering a copy of a new edition to be published by Handheld Press on 9th November 2021, especially since it has an introduction by Kate Macdonald, who has published widely on the life and works of John Buchan.

To pre-order or purchase a copy of The Gap in the Curtain, visit the Handheld Press website, You can read an updated version of my original review below.

The Gap in the CurtainAbout the Book

John Buchan (1875-1940), author of over 100 books including The Thirty-Nine Steps, was a stealth writer of supernatural and Weird fiction. His 1932 novel The Gap in the Curtain was his last full-length work devoted to exploring a supernatural theme: if you were able to see one year into the future, what would you do with that foreknowledge? And what would it do to you?

The novel tells the story of five country-house guests who are trained by the ailing Professor Moe, an Einsteinian mathematician who has devised a way of seeing into the future.  These five guests each gain one piece of knowledge from the experiment, and have to decide how to act on it. The episodes vary from high drama to social comedy, and use Buchan’s skill in writing political intrigue and adventure abroad. He uses the theme of precognition to show how Fate may not be escaped, no matter how we ingeniously we attempt to wriggle past it.

Format: Paperback (248 pages)                       Publisher: Handheld Press
Publication date: 9th November 2021 [1932] Genre: Fiction

My Review

Written between March 1930 and February 1931, The Gap in the Curtain was published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton on 7th July 1932 and in the US by The Riverside Press on 27th July 1932. The book is dedicated to his friends, Sybil and Lambert Middleton.

The Gap in the Curtain concerns the experiences of a group of guests at a country house party, including lawyer Sir Edward Leithen, who take part in an experiment conducted by the enigmatic Professor Moe. After a period of ‘training’ involving mental exercises and a special diet, they are each given a glimpse of the future by way of an item in The Times newspaper dated a year hence. Being a logical and down-to-earth fellow, Leithen sees nothing but a blank page. However, the other five who take part are profoundly affected by what they see. The different ways in which they react to the foreknowledge they have been granted over the next twelve months are recounted by Leithen.

For two of the guests, David Mayot and Arnold Tavanger, the insights relate to the worlds of politics and finance. The attempts by Mayot (described by Leithen as having ‘not a very generous allowance of brains’ and ‘as much magnetism as a pillar-box’) to second-guess how the political situation he saw might come about involves a good deal of tactical and frankly not very principled behind the scenes manoeuvring. The satirical nature of Buchan’s exposition of the positions of different political factions may have been more obvious to readers of the day.

What keen investor Arnold Tavanger sees in The Times leads him to embark on a journey across continents to secure what he believes will bring him huge financial rewards. His epic trip across Africa sees him take to the air with a pilot ‘who was one-fourth scientist and three-fourths adventurer, and who did not value his on or anybody else’s life at two pins’. They encounter thunderstorms and at one point end up with two lizards and a snake in the fuselage! In the end though, Tavanger’s experiences lead him to conclude ‘Our ignorance of the future has been widely ordained of Heaven. For unless man were to be like God and know everything, it is better that he should know nothing. If he knows one fact only, instead of profiting by it he will assuredly land in the soup’.

Reggie Daker’s insight into what he will be undertaking a year hence takes him completely by surprise, being the last thing on earth he would consider doing. However, over the course of the next few months, the reader witnesses the influence of the attractive Verona Cortal and her family on the rather compliant by nature Reggie. Says Leithen, ‘He had the air of a smallish rabbit caught in a largish trap. But it was a stoical rabbit, for to me he made no complaint’. Eventually, fate lends a hand to provide Reggie with a means of escape.

The final two guests – Robert Goodeve and Captain Charles Ottery – both see articles in The Times concerning themselves that are much more profound in nature. It is in their two stories that Buchan really addresses the notions of predestination and free will. For one of the characters, the fate he is presented with turns him into a haunted man. It confirms a subconscious belief he has always held that his is a family whose lives are destined to end tragically, that ‘They have spirit without fortitude’. For the other, it provokes a courageous response to the hand dealt him, helped by the love of a good woman. “What concerned him was how to pass the next eight months without disgracing his manhood”. It seems clear which of the two responses Buchan admires most. Not only because of the way the last story ends but also because it contains a reference to one of Buchan’s most cherished books, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. “He had come out of the Valley of the Shadow to the Delectable Mountains.”

The book received some warm reviews upon publication, notably from J.B. Priestley who praised Buchan’s ‘gallant versatility’ and recommended it as a book that could be read ‘with excitement and profit’. Janet Adam Smith, Buchan’s first biographer, reports that The Gap in the Curtain had sold 78,000 copies up to 1960.

David Daniell, author of The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of John Buchan (Nelson, 1975), describes The Gap in the Curtain as a ‘satirical’ book in which Buchan takes aim at the world of international finance and politics. Ursula Buchan, John Buchan’s granddaughter and author of Beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan (Bloomsbury, 2019), suggests the ‘brilliant, lengthy and disillusioned description of British politics at that time’ reflects Buchan’s own experiences as a Member of Parliament. Andrew Lownie, author of John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (Constable, 1995), feels that, although the idea of being able to look into the future was not new, Buchan was able to give it a new spin. He also finds it significant that the action of the book takes place at Easter citing its exploration of the redemptive power of love, the nature of Free Will and the concept of predestination.

In her fascinating introduction to the new edition, Kate Macdonald comments that Buchan used the supernatural ‘not to explore other realms, but to agreeably frighten his readers, in highly-skilled entertainment’.

In three words: Inventive, entertaining, thoughtful

Try something similar: The Watcher by the Threshold by John Buchan

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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.

#BookReview Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass @ViperBooks

Black DropAbout the Book

This is the confession of Laurence Jago. Clerk. Gentleman. Reluctant spy.

July 1794, and the streets of London are filled with rumours of revolution. Political radical Thomas Hardy is to go on trial for treason, the war against the French is not going in Britain’s favour, and negotiations with the independent American colonies are on a knife edge.

Laurence Jago – clerk to the Foreign Office – is ever more reliant on the Black Drop to ease his nightmares. A highly sensitive letter has been leaked to the press, which may lead to the destruction of the British Army, and Laurence is a suspect. Then he discovers the body of a fellow clerk, supposedly a suicide.

Blame for the leak is shifted to the dead man, but even as the body is taken to the anatomists, Laurence is certain both of his friend’s innocence, and that he was murdered. But after years of hiding his own secrets from his powerful employers, and at a time when even the slightest hint of treason can lead to the gallows, how can Laurence find the true culprit without incriminating himself?

Format: Hardcover (352 pages)         Publisher: Viper
Publication date: 14th October 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction, Crime

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My Review

Black Drop makes use of that favourite device of authors – a diary or letters in which a character gives a first-hand account of events they have witnessed. In this case, it’s the written confession of Laurence Jago, a clerk at the Foreign Office (who obviously has a remarkable ability to recall conversations verbatim).

The suicide of his friend, which Laurence quickly becomes convinced is actually murder, is just the first in a series of grisly deaths. However, perhaps these are in keeping with a period in which many of the populace’s idea of entertainment is pelting muck at the unfortunate occupants of the pillory, watching the hanging of some poor individual, visiting a museum displaying specimens of human anatomy or viewing an exhibition of grisly waxworks.  From this will you gather that Black Drop simply oozes – sometimes quite literally – atmosphere. As Laurence notes ‘The city is excessively rough, and there are pimps and whores and thieves everywhere, with an unwholesome interest in your pockets.’ Not to mention dark alleys and unspeakable substances thrown from windows into the streets below.

Laurence’s increasingly confused view of events is not helped by his growing reliance on the ‘black drop’ of the title, a concoction liberally laced with laudanum, which at times makes it difficult for him to discern what is real and what is imagined.  In fact, he starts off on something with the innocent sounding name of Godfrey’s Cordial until he is persuaded by an apothecary that he should try the stronger Kendal’s Black Drop. ‘Tis a hearty medicine’ says the apothecary proudly.

Laurence becomes convinced he knows the identity of the person responsible for his friend’s murder and those that follow. But is that person too obvious a candidate or is the author building up to an audacious double bluff? You’ll have to read the book to find out.   If I’m honest, one of the characters who plays a significant role in the plot felt a little under-developed; I really couldn’t picture them in my mind’s eye from the description provided. However, I accept this may have been deliberate on the author’s part to maintain an element of mystery about them. My favourite character – apart from Laurence’s dog, Mr Gibbs – was the irrepressible William Philpott, journalist and newspaper editor. He proves a good friend to Laurence and, although I may be mistaken, I wonder if there could be more of their partnership to come?

I’ll confess I knew little detail about the political situation in England at the time of the French Revolution or the attitude of the Government towards it so the author’s Historical Note at the end of the book was extremely useful for putting this into context, and for distinguishing between the real and fictional characters who appear in the book.

Black Drop is an engaging historical mystery with a plot that has plenty of twists and turns, all set against the backdrop of a time of political unrest and growing calls for societal change.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Viper Books via NetGalley.

In three words: Intriguing, atmospheric, suspenseful

Try something similar: Rags of Time by Michael Ward

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Leonora NattrassAbout the Author

Leonora Nattrass studied eighteenth-century literature and politics, and spent ten years lecturing in English and publishing works on William Cobbett. She then moved to Cornwall, where she lives in a seventeenth-century house with seventeenth-century draughts, and spins the fleeces of her traditional Ryeland sheep into yarn. Black Drop is her first novel. (Photo/bio credit: Author website)

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