Courts of the Morning (1929) may not be Buchan’s most successful thriller, but it’s possibly his most ambitious. In various ways.
First of all, it’s got scale. Its action ranges across Olifa, a vast South American republic with an intensely imagined landscape of impassable mountains, forests populated by cannibal wolves, and the Pais de Venenos, the poisoned country that produces nothing but vile and potent drugs.
Second, its theme is war, and it propounds and tests a whole theory of warfare. A subtext is the question that had been niggling ever since the Great War – could there be any other way to fight? The Olifan army is up-to-date, and “has learned all the lessons of our little scraps in France and Flanders” but still fights like an army. Its “patient and very cautious” leader, General Lossberg, has “an orderly mind”, and reminds one of certain Generals of 1914-18. Sandy Arbuthnot, on the other hand, is enigmatic and a shape-shifter ( and he is always described as having a “girlish” figure, whilst the heroines are always “boyish” – hmmm.). His precise intentions, as in the Hannay books, are almost always hidden from both the reader and the other characters. Arbuthnot wants to find a different way of fighting, avoiding wasteful head-on conflicts, using a small mobile force in guerrilla raids and a method based on the principle of ju-jitsu, using the enemy’s strength against itself. Inspired maybe by the Boers’ tactics against the British?
Most importantly, though, it’s an ambitious novel about the possibility of salvation. Ever since Greenmantle, Buchan had made a point of taking a person of some type that he disapproved of – pacifist, communist, disillusioned war-poet, and showing that they were capable of more than the stereotype would suggest (though usually without being converted – he respects them enough to let they stay true to their principles.) In this book, he sets up a villain, Castor, who has qualities that reflect most of what Buchan thinks is wrong with the post-war world:
Megalomania in politics, megalomania in business, megalomania in art – there are many kinds. You have the man who wants to be a dictator in his own country, you have the man who wants to… control the finance of half the world, you have the man who wants to break down the historic rules of art and be a law unto himself. The motive is the same in every case – rootlessness, an unbalanced consciousness of ability, and an overweening pride. They want to rule the world, but they do not see that by their methods they must first deprive the world of its soul…
Yet gradually, as this long novel goes on, Castor changes – by becoming part of a community, by feeling affection for a woman, by rising to assume the qualities of a role he has been assigned.
I’m not sure that it quite comes off, (and contemporary critics were tough on this aspect of the novel) but it’s a measure of Buchan’s ambition that he attempts it. I don’t think other thriller writers of the time would have even thought of it.