Three Books: John Buchan’s ‘The Courts of the Morning’

Back in the summer months, some stray thought brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
The last of these books is John Buchan’s The Courts of the Morning. Buchan, who in later life was ennobled with an hereditary peerage as Baron Tweedsmuir, is a famous writer, many of whose novels are still in print seventy-five years after his death, the most famous and indelible of which being The Thirty-Nine Steps.
Buchan was a prolific writer of more than just fiction, publishing over 100 books in his lifetime whilst maintaining an equally full career in diplomacy and politics, including a spell as an MP before reaching his peak as Governor-General of Canada, and a very hard-working, unwavering promoter of Canadian interests.
The Thirty-Nine Steps, despite being far from Buchan’s best novel, is the one for which he remains known. It’s a classic early thriller that has been filmed four times to date, three in the cinema and the most recent for TV. The story stars Richard Hannay, a Scot turned South African mining engineer enjoying leave in London, who gets dragged into a fast-paced chase, seeking to foil a secret organisation planning to throw Europe into War, by assassinating the Greek Prime Minister.
It was a change of direction for Buchan, who wrote the book whilst convalescing at a nursing home with thirty-nine steps down to the beach. He described it as a ‘shocker’ for its implausible events, but it’s recognised as on of the earliest chase-thrillers, and an early example of the genre of an ordinary man prepared to sacrifice his own life for something bigger and more important.
Hannay went on to star in another four novels, and even appears in The Courts of the Morning, though he plays no part in the actual story except to (silently) narrate it. Instead, the book centres upon a group of Buchan’s supporting players, most of whom can be characterised as ‘clubland heroes’ of the kind typified by Dornford Yates’s thrillers. Sandy Arbuthnot, Archie and Janet Roylance, and the American Agent, John Blenkiron, hold the centre of this novel, Buchan’s fifteenth, published in 1929.
The Courts of the Morning is set entirely within the fictional South American country of Olifa, facing west towards the Pacific Ocean. Buchan does a splendidly thorough job of creating a country, with a history and geography, out of whole cloth, having never visited any part of South America in his life.
Olifa stands apart from the traditionally volatile and unstable Latin American countries of stereotype in being a model of stability, almost to the point of political dullness. This is because it’s upland Gran Seco region is home to the richest copper deposits in the world, which makes Olifa a very comfortable country, and to the extraction of these riches under the control of the Gran Seco Mining Company.
But there are matters for concern. The Gran Seco is almost a private fiefdom of the Company, and the country is all but led by the company’s President, a charismatic leader named Castor. Those who work for the company in Gran Seco are rarely seen elsewhere in Olifa, and when they appear, they are pale and thin, their movements are very limited, and they look and act unhealthy.
And this is what the book is about. Castor’s control of the Gran Seco is based upon the supply of an addictive drug but, more than anything, the man is building a base towards establishing a dictatorship that will first sweep the South American continent.
Hannay’s friends, Sandy Arbuthnot, the Roylances, Blenkiron and his niece Barbara, Hannay’s former batman Geordie Hamilton, all these people are drawn together into a freelance alliance of souls whose aim is to head off Castor, a man who, even before he is brought on stage, is being spoken of admiringly in Napoleonic terms..
Their plan is ingenious: to kidnap Castor, removing him to a remote, defensible area of Olifa on its northernmost coast, that is known as the Courts of the Morning. A guerrilla civil war is raised, with Castor as its announced leader, wholly against his will. By this, Archie and Co plan to trap Castor into a situation that will neutralise him.
Instead, the experience affects Castor unexpectedly. He grows attached to Janet Roylance and comes over to Archie’s band, taking true control of the civil war and redeeming himself, albeit too late, as his former allies mount a retributory attack that, aimed at the women, succeeds in killing Castor.
The book is longer and more detailed than many of Buchan’s similar thrillers, in part because Buchan chooses to build so detailed a vision of Olifa, but in large part because, during the latter part of the book, he spends a lot of time and wordage upon troop movements as Olifa erupts in civil war. He was criticised heavily for this at the time, and yes, it is a bit dry, but at the same time it serves a purpose, to contrast the differing flexibility of the Olifan forces and Sandy’s rebel army.
Buchan faced criticism on this score when The Courts of the Morning was published, and also upon the larger and more unavoidable issue of Castor’s conversion from Dictator to Agent of Liberty. The criticism is more than fair: there are no concrete grounds upon which to base the change of heart no introduction of new facts or interpretations that invalidate the would-be dictator’s entirely self-centred concerns and open his eyes.
The process is mystical, spurred on, in the only sense put forward, by Castor’s growing impression of the lovely Janet Roylance, who, from the outset, he accepts is a married woman whose commitment is absolute and who can never offer him anything but friendship.
But all of this is taking place in the Courts of the Morning itself, a remote area of Olifa, lovely beyond measure, peaceful and heart-easing. It is both a superb pracical base, and a part of an otherworld, not entirely of this planet.
Buchan doesn’t paint it in any way crudely as that, but what makes The Courts of the Morning so involving a book is the Courts of the Morning, its evocative name indicating somewhere where the facts of real life are subtly altered, and in which minds can rewrite themselves in better language.
Castor emerges the opposite of how he was on arrival, taking up arms against his former self. He leads the forces Sandy Arbuthnot has raised to victory over the evils he has raised in preparation for far deeper depradations, but his return from the Dark has come too late for him to be freed from consequence and he is killed by those he once led, proud to the last.
It has to be said that The Courts of the Morning is very much of its time, and Buchan was Conservative of mind and conviction. It has to be accepted that there will be references to Jews and Negroes, Anarchists and the Poison of Communism, and that these will be derogatory. Those who cannot accept that in the past such things were regarded differently should not read this book: those who can put such things to the back of their mind will find a stirring and uplifting adventure, and will wish, in some way or anoher, to transport themselves to the Courts of the Morning.
This book remains on my shelves.

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