155. Three Hostages and Island of Sheep

John Buchan is a late-blooming inheritor of the literature of Kipling and Scott. He is best known for a minor thriller, the Thirty-nine Steps (presented Monday), and for its four sequels featuring Richard Hannay. The last two of those sequels are presented here

The Three Hostages

Now the war is over and Hannay and Mary have settled in to a life of peace with their son Peter John. It is not to last. Three hostages have been taken from three of England’s leaders, and the ransom is their support of a program destructive to England. Hannay, against his inclinations, enters the search for the hostages. Much of the story is a series of chases, following various clues, during which Hannay is once again forced to work against the ordinary police to maintain his secrecy. Even when he finds some of the hostages, they cannot be rescued immediately. Unless all three can be retrieved at once, those missed will perish.

Much of the book is a satisfying look at Hannay at work, but there are also long, dull, dreary passages. Hannay first falls under the spell of the mystic hypnotist who is behind the kidnappings, then breaks the spell through deep personal stubbornness. His enemy is not aware that Hannay has recovered, so Hannay plays the role of sycophant, waiting for the chance to rescue the victims. It is a time of misery for Hannay; unfortunately, it is also a time of misery for the reader.

The story largely redeems itself in the last two chapters, which form a kind of long epilog during which Hannay and his nemesis come physically to grips in a Highland deer park.

The Three Hostages is the weakest of the Hannay stories, but still worth reading. Just don’t start with it.

The Island of Sheep

Twelve years after The Three Hostages we once again meet Hannay and his now-teenage son Peter John. Hannay is in a middle-age slump, no longer feeling that he is doing his part to pay rent on his piece of the planet. In that mood, he falls into company with Lombard, a man he recognizes as a old friend from his youth. He remembers an adventure they shared in South Africa, and the vow that came out of it.

Shortly thereafter, he and his son fall in briefly with a Norlander (Norlands is Buchan’s name for the Faroe Islands) who is on the run from some unknown terror. Then Sandy Arbutnot arrives with tablet of jade and a complicated story about the end of an old adventurer known to them both.

All these things come together as if ordained by fate. There is a lot of fate in this book, but don’t worry; fate gets our heroes into trouble, but they have to get out of trouble on their own. It turns out that Haraldsen, the old adventurer who scratched his last testament on the back of the jade tablet, is the same man whom Hannay and Lombard defended against an enemy during their youth, and is also the father of the frightened Norlander. The vow which Haraldsen (senior) extracted from Hannay and Lombard requires them to come to the aid of his son.

The son of the old enemy of Haraldsen (senior) has sworn vengeance on his son, the Norlander, and has claimed the tablet which he thinks is the key to the treasure the old man searched for all his life.

Hannay and Lombard, each for his own reasons, decide to help the son. The bulk of the book sees that carried out through many adventures.

More than any book in the series, this is less about happenings than about the motivations and emotions behind the action. Haraldsen (the younger) is vastly and vacillatingly emotional, shifting from despair, to resignation, to berserk rage. This is his national character. Of course, the Nazis have since made national character a questionable concept, but this was published in 1936. The modern reader can just think of these characteristics as Haraldsen’s personality, and read on without guilt.

The Island of Sheep is not the best of the series, nevertheless, it is one of my favorites. It has that “northern thing” that drove Tolkien’s work. Fate stirs the pot in the beginning and personalities carry the rest of the story relentlessly on.


This is the last Hannay novel, although he also appears as a minor character in The Courts of Morning. Tomorrow, A Prince of the Captivity, which “reads like an apotheosis of the Hannay books . . .”


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