Book review: Castle Macnab, by Robert J Harris

Robert J Harris
Robert J Harris
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John Buchan was a prodigious writer who produced biographies, a multi-volume history of the First World War and 29 novels, five of them featuring Richard Hannay, most famously The Thirty-Nine Steps. Castle Macnab is the second new Hannay novel from Robert J Harris (who also writes young adult fiction), after last year’s Thirty-One Kings, which brought back some familiar friends and foes.

In Castle Macnab, Harris takes us to the 1920s using the 1925 novel John Macnab as his springboard, deftly introducing that book’s story and central characters (the “Three Macnabs”, aka Sir Edward Leithen, Lord Lamancha and John Pallister-Yeates), before bringing in Hannay himself in dramatic fashion – exhausted from a race across the Highlands, he all but falls at his friends’ feet when the front door of their holiday home, Rushforth Lodge, is opened.

Once revived, he tells his tale. On his journey to the lodge, Hannay took a shortcut through the forest, where he met a man he recognised as the former Kaiser of Germany. He has slipped away from his minders in Holland (where he has lived in exile since 1918, a real piece of history) and come to the UK ostensibly for a shooting holiday, but with an ulterior motive – one that is later found to be subverted by others. There is no time to dwell on this strange circumstance, however, as three ruthless men appear who also know exactly who the Kaiser is, despite his false name, and aren’t averse to using violence to separate him from Hannay.

On reaching the lodge, Hannay tells his friends simply: “We must track down these men and rescue the Kaiser.” It’s an extraordinary statement from a man who only a few years before was fighting in the trenches and on secret missions to thwart the Germans – but it’s not extraordinary in terms of a plot for a Buchan novel; Castle Macnab captures that element perfectly.

The Kaiser’s abductors are quickly identified and the man himself found, imprisoned but unhurt. His captors are determined he should meet his maker after a “trial” for his war crimes, giving Hannay and Leithen their way in to rescue him. Meanwhile, Lamancha and Pallister-Yeates bump into friends in the nick of time who can help with the escapade. Then a biplane arrives with a very important passenger, and the plot becomes so packed it’s hard to contain it within this slim book.

In a Buchan novel, there is often a slightly preposterous plot filled with derring-do and characters getting themselves into various scrapes, only to be aided at crucial points by friends in disguise or familiar faces in unexpected places. Castle Macnab follows that template doggedly – including the fantastical final fight.

Harris’s pacing is brisk and his style is suitably swashbuckling, with plenty of nods to Buchan’s other novels and works. But though Castle Macnab is good fun and an admiring tribute, I’m not entirely won over – I’ll probably stick with the originals when I’m in the mood to spend an evening with Richard Hannay. - Louise Fairbairn

Castle Macnab, by Robert J Harris, Polygon, £12.99