“Civilization is a conspiracy,” said John Buchan. “Modern life is the silent compact of comfortable folk to keep up pretences.” This statement could be applied to many of his novels in which characters who are ordinary and human are drawn from their pretences into all kinds of adventure. He gave us characters like Richard Hannay, the Scots mining engineer, and Edward Leithen, the barrister and MP. Less well known, however, is Dickson McCunn, the protagonist from his 1922 novel Huntingtower. Dickson is everything you least expect of a hero in an adventure story: he is fifty-five years old and a recently retired grocer. He is the logical antithesis of the James Bond type of hero and, while successful, is drawn very much from the ranks of the common man. He is dependable, not flashy.
Huntingtower is a rip-roaring adventure story that reads with all the fun and enjoyment that, as a child, could be derived from Enid Blyton. (Actually I saw a lady reading the famous five a little while back in the park – it seems the enjoyment does not diminish with age!) It tells of Dickson McCunn going for a walking holiday and soon finding himself up to his ears in adventure; the story is centred around a Russian Princess who, having escaped the revolution, is being held against her will in the house of the title. As with stories such as The thirty-nine steps there is a back drop of historical relevancy and it very much reflects attitudes and thoughts of the time. What makes Huntingtower different is the light hearted and amusing touches throughout. Helping with this are a group of street urchins from Glasgow called the Gorbals Die-Hards who are camping near-by and turn out to have a spirit at once adventurous and militant. Their exploits are constantly referenced, by the narrator, in comparison to those of great figures from history and the show resourcefulness and hardy courage whenever called upon; while Dickson is the central figure and the narrator is telling his story the Gorbals Die-Hards could arguably be said to steal the show.
I really enjoyed this book and think that it shows Buchan on top-form throughout. It’s not about deep emotional insights, it’s just a good fun read. There were some characters who speak mainly in the Scots’ dialect but it’s usually understandable (just!) and where it isn’t there is a glossary of terms at the back. The story combines light hearted romanticism and adventure with some allusions to the failings and evils of the new social order emerging in Russia at the time. What I find most endearing about Buchan’s work is the way he can write so well – his descriptions of places are particularly excellent – but keep it entertaining and enjoyable throughout and, for me, this is up there with the best of his books.