Friday, 21 October 2016

Supersonic Buchan: Moonraker and John Buchan's The Three Hostages

While I’ve long maintained that the origin of James Bond owes more to American hardboiled thrillers by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett than it does to pre-Second World War literary clubland heroes, such as Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay, there is no denying that the third Bond novel, Moonraker (1955) is Ian Fleming at his most Buchan-esque.

I was reminded of this as I read the fourth Hannay adventure, The Three Hostages (1924). In the book, set after the First World War, Hannay is a retired army general eager for the quiet life at his Cotswold estate. Before long, though, he is persuaded by Macgillivray, who works for the Secret Service, to use his particular set of skills to help, unofficially, in the search for three individuals of note who have been kidnapped by a criminal gang.

Hannay has little to go on other than a piece of indifferent doggerel written by the mastermind behind the plot. The clue is enough, however, to take Hannay to one Dominick Medina, a extraordinarily handsome, clever and popular politician, the best shot in England and a poet to boot. Hannay initially seeks Medina's assistance, but realises, eventually, that Medina is the villain at the centre of the conspiracy.   

In general terms, The Three Hostages and Moonraker cover similar ground. Both have home-grown plots that begin in the refined and exclusive surroundings of London's clubland. Indeed, Hannay and Bond first meet Medina and Moonraker's villain, Sir Hugo Drax, in gentlemen's clubs (the Thursday Club and Blades, respectively). The schemes of both villains' aim to strike at the heart of the British government and bring the country to its knees, reflecting the deep-seated hatred that Medina and Drax have for Britain.

The villains, too, are cut from a similar cloth. Both are adored by the public and, at least initially, by the books' heroes. When M asks if he's heard of Sir Hugo, Bond replies that 'you can't open a paper without reading something about him'. The man's a national hero, Bond adds, and continues to give a gushing account of Drax before pausing, 'almost carried away by the story of this extraordinary man.'

Hannay's rather smitten with his man as well, and has the same thought as Bond. 'You couldn't open a paper without seeing something about Dominick Medina', he tells us. Hannay's friend, Dr Greenslade considers Medina a great man, and judging by the papers, the whole world thinks so too. When Hannay meets Medina, he remarks on the attractiveness of the man, his easy-going personality, and admits to being fascinated by him and under his spell.

Hannay tells his best friend and co-adventurer, Sandy Arbuthnot, that Medina is 'the only fellow I ever heard of who was adored by women and liked by men', a line that has a curious echo in the phrase applied to Bond by Raymond Mortimer: 'James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets.'

Neither Bond nor Hannay are quick to suspect Drax and Medina of villainous intent, and in a way the idea that a powerful, seemingly altruistic, and charming man is beyond suspicion has endured in fiction, finding expression, for example, in the Bond films. In the film of Moonraker, when Bond takes M and the Minister of Defence to Drax's secret laboratory, the Minister is sceptical. 'I hope you know what you're doing, Bond', he says, 'I've played bridge with Drax.' And similarly, in A View To A Kill (1985) when Bond wonders if Zorin himself was responsible for an infiltration of Zorin Industries by the KGB, the Minister of Defence splutters, 'Max Zorin? Impossible. He's a leading French industrialist... with influential friends in the government.'

Drax can't compete with Medina for looks. Drax has facial scars from the war, and has protruding front teeth or a diastema that he attempts to hide by growing a luxurious moustache. But Medina isn't perfect either. Hannay notes that Medina's head 'was really round, the roundest head' he had ever seen. He continues that Medina was 'conscious of it and didn't like it, so took some pains to conceal it' with his hair. Oddly enough, the very round head would be a villainous trait in a Bond novel. In Live and Let Die, Mr Big is described as having 'a great football of a head, twice the normal size and very nearly round.'

One final shared trait worth mentioning is that both Drax and Medina are somehow 'other' by virtue of their foreignness or perceived foreignness, which to some extent explains their villainy. Drax is of course revealed to be German. Dominick Medina is English, but his name raises a question in Hannay's mind. 'I suppose he's some sort of Dago', he says to Greenslade. On meeting Medina, Hannay remarks that his face 'was very English, and yet not quite English.'

I wouldn't go as far as to say that Ian Fleming was influenced by The Three Hostages directly, but given their common traits or memes, Buchan's novel and Moonraker certainly inhabit the same cultural environment. Famously, one critic referred to Fleming as 'supersonic John Buchan'. In the case of Moonraker, I'm rather inclined to agree.

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