John Buchan’s “The Island of Sheep”

I have over the past couple of years blogged on all of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay thrillers, with the exception of The Island of Sheep (known in some American editions as The Man From the Norlands), published in 1936 and the last pure thriller Buchan wrote before his untimely death in 1940, during his period of office as Governor-General of Canada.

I first read John Buchan when I was in my teens. He remains one of my favourite authors; to my mind nobody quite did what he liked to call ‘shockers’ quite as well. I can well remember my first teenage reading of The Island of Sheep, by candlight in a tent on a camping expedition. The story gripped me then and has since, though I know it almost by heart.

Richard Hannay is the hero of some of Buchan’s finest novels, from The Thirty-Nine Steps, through Greenmantle and Mr Standfast, to The Three Hostages. Rather like its author, the Hannay of The Island of Sheep is growing old. He feels himself to be sluggish, out of sorts, his adventurous past just memories.

Then an incident from his distant past, when he was a mining engineer in South Africa, comes back to haunt him. He recalls a siege against villains, when he came to the assistance of a Norse fortune-seeker called Haraldsen. At its resolution, Haraldsen makes Hannay and his friend Lombard swear an oath to come to the protection of himself and his family should the need ever arise.

A promise forgotten over the decades. Hannay is now a middle-aged country squire, Lombard an overweight and out of condition banker, and the third member of the trio – Peter Pienaar, the Boer hunter who appears in several Buchan novels, killed in the Great War.

Haraldsen is dead too, but his son is alive, being pursued by a gang of blackmailers and extortioners. The younger Haraldsen meets Hannay again in Norfolk, worn out, a man on the run. So Hannay and Lombard – aided by Sandy Arbuthnot, the hero of Greenmantle – find themselves secreting Haraldsen away, first at Hannay’s home in the Cotswolds, and then at Sandy’s home in the Scottish Borders.

Along the way are many adventures, including a magnificent car chase up the Great North Road – perhaps the best car chase in thrillerdom, certainly the best written.

There is another pleasing addition to the gang of allies, Hannay’s son Peter John, a keen naturalist whose knowledge of the ways of wild geese helps to save the day. Peter John is very much a chip off the old block – he is based on Buchan’s own eldest son, who himself wrote splendid memoirs of his life in Scotland and adventures in natural history. Buchan dedicated this book to his son.

After alarms and excursions in the Scottish borders, the action moves to Haraldsen’s home, the Island of Sheep of the title, set in the wild landscapes of the Faeroe Islands, where the action comes to an exciting climax in what can only be described as a Viking ending.

To my mind, no writer comes close to Buchan in describing wild landscapes, whether it be the meadows and woodlands of the Cotswolds, the glens and hillsides of the Scottish Borders, or the windswept islands of the north Atlantic. His knowledge of the land came from his own explorations. He was, for all his life, a great walker and considerable rock climber. He captures the spirit of the place in a way that haunts your mind long after you’ve finished reading one of his books.

I’ve walked many of the landscapes which inspired Buchan. He got them right. He was also a very fine literary artist. Probably one of the best writers who turned his hand to writing thrillers. No matter how many times I read his books, I always want to start again.

If any writer inspired me to write the kind of books I do, it is John Buchan, though I make not the slightest claim to have anything like his great genius for such stories. My own Scottish thriller Balmoral Kill is my own small tribute to this wonderful writer.

It is pleasing to see that Buchan is now taken seriously as a great Scottish novelist, after years of being sidelined and saddled with misconceptions by critics who rarely actually read what he wrote or studied the truth about his life.

The Island of Sheep is a fine conclusion to the Richard Hannay stories.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “John Buchan’s “The Island of Sheep”

  1. I too am glad to see John Buchan being taken seriously as a writer. Have you read his Edward Leithen books? The Power House is an early “shocker” type but I think his best book is the elegiac Sick Heart River.

  2. I’m very much a Leithen fan and hope to blog on some of them soon. The Power House is a terrific London thriller which I hope to re-read very soon. Sick Heart River’s wonderful, sad and elegiac. A masterpiece in so many ways.

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