JOHN BUCHAN – The Man From the Norlands. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1936. First published in the UK as Island of Sheep by Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, 1936. Reprinted many times since.

   This is the last of the five books in the Richard Hannay series that began with The Thirty Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Third Hostage and this, with many of the characters save for Hannay appearing in The Courts of the Morning, which figures in this book. It comes relatively late in author John Buchan’s career. Only a few more novels would follow it, but in it he shows no loss of the skills that made him the master of the thriller/adventure novel or ‘shocker’ as he preferred to call them.

   I have written about Buchan extensively in an earlier review of The Three Hostages for anyone interested in his extraordinary life of service and creativity. Here I’ll settle on discussing the final adventure of his creation Richard Hannay.

   It opens with Sir Richard Hannay, who we have not seen since the events in The Three Hostages, living in retirement on his estate, Fosse, with his wife Mary and fourteen year old son Peter John. Though the bond between father and son is strong, Peter John remains a bit of a mystery to the robust somewhat unimaginative elder Hannay (he was never meant for any kind of schoolboy, for talk about ‘playing the game’ and the ‘team spirit’ and ‘the honour of the old House’ simply made him sick), and a good deal of the novel deals with coming of age and relations between fathers and sons, real and surrogate. It also deals with a theme never far from Buchan’s mind, or that of anyone brought up in the late Victorian age and coming of age in the Edwardian period, the subject of atavism.

   Much of the best popular literature of the Victorian/Edwardian era deals with the atavistic urge whether it be Stevenson’s physically schizophrenic doctor and his ape-like unconscious, Doyle’s demon hound, Stoker’s vampire count, Burrough’s savage Ape Man, or Rider Haggard’s embodiment of the anima, Ayesha. Here, the hold the past has on one man under siege is part and parcel of the story.

   The man from the Norlands, or Northlands, meaning Denmark in this book, is Mr.James Smith, a slightly foreign gentleman with very good English who is staying nearby and has a certain air about him (he was a hunted man, in desperate terror of some pursuer and lying very low). It is Sandy Clanroyden, Lord Clanroyden, Hannay’s old pal and fellow adventurer (Greenmantle on, and hero of The Courts of the Morning), who is Buchan’s stand in for T. E. Lawrence and Aubrey Herbert, who first clues him to Smith’s identity recalling a man they both knew earlier, a Danish adventurer named Marius Haraldson. Then from another friend who also knew Haraldson in the adventurous old days in Africa, Lombard, he learns of Haraldson’s son, Valdemar, and his danger.

    ‘This chap came to my office, and he told me a dashed silly story. Oh, a regular blood-and-thunder yarn of how he was in an awful mess, with a lot of crooks out gunning for him. I didn’t follow him very clearly … But the gist of it was that he was in deadly danger, and that his enemies would get him unless he found the right kind of friends. .. I jotted down one or two names he mentioned, the names of the people he was afraid of.’ … ‘Troth,’ he read, ‘Lancelot Troth. And a name which may be Albius or Albion—I didn’t ask him to spell it. Oh, and Barralty — you know, the company-promoter that came down in the Lepcha goldfield business.’”

   The names are familiar enough to Hannay, but Troth died at the hands of his old friend Peter Pienarr back in South Africa, and the names are those from the older Haraldson’s days in South Africa. The miscreant in this case in Troth’s son, a crooked solicitor, with “an eye like a gunman” who has been making vague threats against Haraldson tryin to blackmail him over some claim against his father Troth claims his father had. When Hannay finally meets Haraldson and learns he is Smith he hears the whole story about the Island of Sheep where old Haraldson made his home, and the viable threat Troth, Albius, and Barralty pose to the fortune Haraldson made in Africa and Asia and the mysterious treasure which they covet:

   They visited the Island of Sheep — this was the name of Valdemar’s place — and, when they found it empty, pretty well ransacked the house, just like so many pirates from the sea. But they did no mischief, for they were playing a bigger game.

   Hannay was pledged to help the older Haraldson and debts run deep. After checking in with Macgillvary of the Yard for a run down on Troth and Barralty, and a warning he’s too old for this sort of adventuring, he hides Haraldson out at Fosse, his estate where Peter John is missing a term of school after having his appendix out.

   Haraldsen and Peter John become friends, but then while Sandy Clanroyden comes to visit they discover they are being watched, and Clanroyden spots a man he knows, Jacques D’Ingraville, a French ace who was involved in the action of The Courts of the Morning, as a mercenary in a Latin American revolution in the fictional country of Olfia. It’s a significant lot of villains Haraldson is facing, and D’Ingraville is the worst of them.

   Following Sandy’s advice they decamp Fosse for the wilds of Scotland and Sandy Clanroyden’s estate there, Laverlaw, where they add Haraldson’s thirteen year old daughter, Anna, to the group to be safe after a near miss. Sandy then explains the stakes to them:

   D’Ingraville is the leader now, and the rest must follow, whether they like it or not. He won’t loosen his grip on either his opponents or his allies. He’s the real enemy. My old great-great-great-grandfather at Dettingen led his regiment into action after telling them, “Ye see those lads on yon hill? Well, if ye dinna kill them, they’ll kill you.” That’s what I say about D’Ingraville.’

   The action now switches to Haraldson’s Island of Sheep, where Sandy’s bloody plan is set in motion, to let D’Ingraville and his bloody handed band come to them and end the threat to Haraldson and his daughter once and for all, and as Sandy says of his personal debt with the Frenchman, ‘I’m going to join him on your island, and I think that one or the other of us won’t leave it.’

   Now with the issue clear at hand the siege begins. Peter John and Anna will prove their mettle on their own and bring a much needed rescue with them, and I think the handling of Anna disproves the old line that Buchan could not write women, Haraldson will reclaim his Nordic heritage turned from timid scholar to berserker believing his daughter lost, and a good bloody time is had by all in the rousing finish which again emphasizes the atavistic theme of the book with the arrival of the rescue led by Peter John and Anna, the ancient Viking Grind, as the fishermen are known who once came to the Island of Sheep to pay tribute to the Haraldson family.

   It was as if a legion of trolls had suddenly sprung out of the earth, for these men were outside all my notions of humanity … Dimly I saw D’Ingraville’s men below me cast one look at the murderous invasion and then break wildly for the shore. I didn’t blame them. The sight of that maniacal horde had frozen my very marrow.

   If Man from the Norlands is not the classic the earlier Hannay books are it is still a rousing adventure thriller filled with incident and Buchan’s glorious way of describing weather. action, chase, and the wilds. The suspense is steady, the odds high, and the chances desperate, and that is all you can ask of any thriller. It provides a splendid final outing for Hannay, and it is only a shame we never get to see Peter John in action on his own in later books. The American edition of the book even had a dust wrapper by the magnificent N. C. Wyeth.

   Of course the attitudes of the book are dated, and though Buchan is much less given to that sort of nonsense than the other Clubland writers, H. C. ‘Sapper’ McNeile and Dornford Yates being the primary ones, it still must be faced. There is ample evidence Buchan recanted many of his own earlier statements, and he did revise his works late in life, but he is too good a writer to have his characters speak falsely, and Hannay is, after all, a rough colonial South African. And, like all Buchan novels you may want to soak in a warm tub and relax when you finish, because Buchan is the most exhausting of adventure writers seldom pausing in the relentless movement and incident to let you breathe.

   But the father of the modern spy novel here lets out all the stops in a first rate adventure with just the right mix of mystery, suspense, and action. The opening may be a bit slow for readers not used to storytelling from the past, but once Buchan hooks you his hold is powerful. The mystery of the treasure also has a satisfying irony to it for both villains and heroes. Few series characters make their final bow in a book this good, and the climax when Haraldson reclaims his Viking heritage is blood and thunder at its most glorious and a prime example of Buchan’s gifts as a storyteller par excellence. It is also an elegaic work in that there hangs over it a sense from Buchan and from the character of Richard Hannay that this is the end of an era, the last of the great adventures.

   As Lombard, a character who was pledged to the elder Haraldson, but had settled into a soft life and was drawn by Hannay back into a life of adventure, says late in the book: ‘The Norlands are a spiritual place which you won’t find on any map. Every man must discover his own Island of Sheep. You and Clanroyden have found yours, and I’m going to find mine.’

   Buchan, the man and writer always sought his own Island of Sheep, and in a sense found it in duty and not peace. It is a theme he returns to in his next to last book, the even more elegaic Edward Leithen adventure Sick Heart River, and which dates back to his political novel Lodge in the Wilderness. It is fitting that in their last adventure Richard Hannay and Sandy Clanroyden have finally found their Island of Sheep. It is fine place to say goodbye to them.