Monday, January 25, 2021


by John Buchan
2021 (originally published 1922) / 125 pages

It was Alfred Hitchcock who brought John Buchan to my notice, and perhaps also to the notice of many others. If you are a fan of Hitchcock's work in the 1930s, you have probably seen The 39 Steps - which was based on Buchan's novel of the same title. I think that he should be more known for the very unusual set of linked stories, The Path of the King, which traced the (fictional) aristocratic lineage of President Lincoln.

But onto this also unusual novel - the story of a middle-aged Scottish man in his early retirement, Dickson McCunn. Dickson, the owner of a chain of grocery stores, finds himself at loose ends when he no longer has a company to run. His wife is taking a rest cure at a spa in the country, but Dickson hates the spa, so he begins his retirement by taking a "walking tour."

In typical Buchan (and Hitchcock) style, Dickson gets involved (initially unwillingly) in a quest to save a Russian princess from criminals who want to take her royal riches  for themselves - and herself for their their overbearing leader.

A few cautions:

  • There is a strange offhand reference to "the Jews" who are behind all these shenanigans, but Buchan does not seem to be describing some shadowy international conspiracy, but just the typical corruption and crime that follows any overthrow of the established order (since the novel is set just after the Bolshevik Revolution). Nonetheless, it is disturbing.
  • Dickson seems to have a rather distant relationship with his wife, but it seems to be partly based on his early retirement doldrums. He does warm up to her, and vice versa, after his adventure.
  • Finally, the novel is full of Scottish dialect and archaic speech, but it does become clearer, and gives an amusing and warm flavour to the interaction between Dickson and his new allies.
If Huntingtower has all these problems, why read this book? C.S. Lewis reminds us that reading old books is valuable, because we can generally see through their errors (because we don't share those errors), but we can learn about values that we've forgotten or dismissed. Keeping that in mind, here's what I liked about the story.
  • Dickson, a newly retired business owner, learns how to step outside his carefully ordered life to play a whole new role as a protector of a princess. It's not easy, either: When he goes back to Glasgow to protect the princess's jewels in a safety deposit box, he is tempted to leave it at that, but then realizes that he is being called upon to help a vulnerable young woman. He rises to the challenge, like a true good Samaritan, even when he gets beaten up a couple times.
  • Finally, Dickson makes friends with the Gorbal Die-Hards, a gang of young ruffians from his hometown who run up against the much rougher and more malicious and ambitious gang out to capture the princess and her gems. Dickson gains a real respect and affection for the Die-Hards and eventually takes them under his wing - a much more long-term commitment than his help for the princess.
In other words, this is a coming-of-age story for a man who is already of age - a good reminder that we're never too old to take on new challenges for the help of our neighbours. If you want to find Scottish post-WWI adventure, as Dickson McCunn unexpectedly did, you can find Huntingtower here, and here in Canada.

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