The Island of Sheep (John Hannay) by John Buchan

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The Island of Sheep (John Hannay) by John Buchan

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A slightly languid and plummy thriller, but the sense of place and nature is superlative at times.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 242 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Polygon
ISBN: 978-1846971563

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Richard Hannay is feeling old. He looks at himself and his contemporaries and sees a spread of complacency. Luckily - or perhaps very unluckily - an old pledge will come to haunt him. His earlier career in Africa saw Hannay and his friends swear to protect a man from others - and now a second generation of animosity is ripe for Hannay to step in and be a protective detective. Add in a supposed treasure hoard, and who knows where his last journey might end up?

You might not expect Hannay, on the evidence of whichever The 39 Steps adaptation you know the best, to be featuring in such a rural book. He first meets his charge while relaxing in the countryside. Major scenes concern their hiding out in a very finely evoked Scottish isolation. But as the introduction here suggests, this has never been thought of as strictly a thriller.

Buchan, from what I can gather, had a very fine writing career. In his fiction he dipped in and out of the lives of several heroes, ageing them alongside his real life, and fitting them into a story not for commercial reasons but because their bearing most suited whichever adventure he had dreamt up, and when Buchan's own experience and travels allowed for a knowledgeable and well-realised escapade. Hence the veracity of the scenery, pastoral aspects and travelling that fill so many of these pages. You could be sure the lengthy car chase scene here (a highlight) would have been travelled, and never researched solely through Ordnance Survey maps.

And so Buchan, winding down many of his own prestigious careers, and publishing what was to be his last novel (save for the posthumous lost classic Sick Heart River), makes Hannay a slightly elderly, paternal figure. He looks after the man under threat from the bitterness against him just as the father to whom the pledge was first made might have done, and allows his son to play a major part in proceedings, especially when the victim's school-age daughter enters the fray.

This reactive, as opposed to proactive, Hannay may be a stumbling block for some readers. Others will find the broad vocab (several words were new to me, far more so in fact than normal) and style too removed from what they're used to. Here the old approach to flashbacks - having a character narrate at length to the rest, and everyone with perfect recall for dialogue, etc - means everyone has a slightly flowery speech, and almost all surely have a plummy, inter-wars accent.

But those characters react to the nature they hide within, which is what Buchan sought, and the book leaves the thriller elements behind to show people responding to the calling of family, but seeking the protection of home - whether that's a city mansion, a rural pile or a tiny, desolate island kingdom. It's a literary kind of thriller, then - with a sweeping drive to a vivid conclusion, but with things to say in a classical style, that you either find gets in the way, or produces a completely absorbing reality within which these characters set their tiny corners of the world to rights.

I must thank the kind Polygon people for my review copy.

You might enjoy the contrast between the ageing hero here and the dying hero in Bank Of The Black Sheep (Robin Llywelyn Trilogy) by Robert Lewis, such is the broad church of crime fiction.

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Buy The Island of Sheep (John Hannay) by John Buchan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Island of Sheep (John Hannay) by John Buchan at


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