Weird plot. But Buchan is brilliant at describing the joy of hunting (and being hunted) in a cold, wet and foggy highland landscape. He is brilliant at capturing the native tongue of the gillies and gamekeepers. He has the joyous character of tinkler orphan Fish Benjie and the feisty Janet Raden. There is a moment of high comedy when Archie, the prospective Tory MP for the area, has stage fright making his maiden speech and can only repeat (twice) the words of the chairman who welcomed him to the stage.
There are, of course, terrible un-PC moments. The posh people and the poor people might as well inhabit different universes. Posh people, who have a natural air of command, expect to hoodwink and terrify the poor. If they dress like them, their clothes are unmentionable and appalling. But a hot bath and a stiff whisky at the end of the day and a glorious dinner cooked by a poor person makes it all better. At the end of the book an ex-soldier, down on his luck ("The Gov'ment don't seem to care what 'appens to us poor Gawd-forgotten devils, sir.") has had his leg broken by the cabinet minister who, to his credit, is awfully sorry, especially realising that such an injury might destroy the man's source of income. But in the epilogue, Buchan has forgotten all about this man, concentrating only on the upper classes.
Buit Buchan was not entirely without redemption. The prospective Tory MP's doctrine is one of "Challenge.; of no privilege without responsibility, of only one right of man - the right to do his duty; of all power and property held on sufferance. ... What was Bolshevism but a challenge, perhaps a much-needed challenge, to make certain of the faith that was in a man? He had no patience with the timorous and whining rich. No law could protect them unless they made themselves worth protecting. ... So soon as a cause feared inquiry and the light of day, that cause was doomed." It is an interesting position. Is this still what the Tories believe?
This is the first appearance in fiction that I have encountered of the tremendously famous then and unheard of now Italian poet d'Annunzio about whom Lucy Hughes-Hallett wrote her brilliant biography entitled The Pike.
A remarkable book. It made me want to tramp the hills of Scotland in the fog and the rain (and then go home to a roaring fire and a groaning table). A brilliant evocation of landscape.
September 2015; 248 pages
Other books by Buchan reviewed in this blog:
- The Three Hostages starring Richard Hannay which is rather silly but very readable (and ends with a wonderful chase in the Scottish hills).
- Huntingtower which is also set in Scotland and stars an urchin quite like Fish Benji; another silly plot but a wonderful presentation of the way highland Scots talk and live.
- Witch Wood, probably Buchan's best book, set in seventeenth century Scotland which yet again gives us a fantastic feel for the Scottish speech and the landscape, though this is rather more in the lowlands.
- Greenmantle: another bonkers plot with weak characters set during the First World War