It was around 1980 that I caught a production of John Buchan’s The Three Hostages on PBS. The dramatization was a one-off; I don’t think that particular actor ever played Richard Hannay again. But it intrigued me enough to motivate me to read The 39 Steps, the first novel in the series. That made me a lifelong Buchan fan, but oddly enough I never read The Three Hostages until just now.
It’s good. I’d say it’s one of the stronger entries in a classic series.
In The Three Hostages, World War I is recently over. Richard Hannay, British intelligence agent extraordinaire, has settled down on a farm in Oxfordshire with his wife Mary (also a retired agent), and their small son. He looks forward (or thinks he does) to living the quiet life of a country squire. But then he receives an appeal for help. Three people, one of them a small boy, have been taken hostage. There is no clue as to the perpetrator. Reluctantly, Hannay agrees to look into it. Gradually he begins to suspect the last person anyone would suspect – a rising young politician who has endeared himself to nearly every influential person in London. A hopeless-seeming but successful investigation (hypnotism features strongly) is capped by a deadly man-to-man showdown in the Scottish highlands.
I was surprised – once again – by what a fine author John Buchan was. Among all the writers of the English “bulldog” school, nobody came near him when it came to writing readable prose. Richard Hannay is a vivid and likeable character, and all his friends are just as believable (his enemies, perhaps, a little less). He especially distinguishes himself in his descriptive passages, which are wonderfully done (this pleased me especially in the short section set in Norway).
Modern readers will be put off by racial and ethnic slurs which were a normal part of English life at the time. For some reason Hannay makes much of the villain having a round head, which he sees as un-English and sinister. On the other hand, those same readers will appreciate the active part Mary Hannay takes in the action.
If you’re open-minded enough to tolerate temporal diversity, The Three Hostages is great fun.