First published in 1929, The Courts of the Morning was John Buchan's fifteenth novel. Several of the author's travelling band of players make a welcome return in this story of revolutionary politics set in the fictional South American republic of Olifa. Richard Hannay, of Thirty-Nine Steps fame, appears briefly to introduce the story, and the other characters include such familiar names as Sandy Arbuthnot (now Lord Clanroyden), John S Blenkiron, Archie Roylance and Geordie Hamilton.
Olifa, overlooking the Pacific and bounded in the east by a range of mountains, is an apparently prosperous and peaceful country. Its capital, Olifa City, seems to offer the perfect blend of Old World refinement and New World exoticism for honeymooners Sir Archie Roylance and his wife Janet. However, behind this respectable fašade, a sinister force is at work in the province of the Gran Seco (or 'Great Thirst'), a copper-mining district to the north of the capital. The lucrative mining concern is the personal fiefdom of the Gran Seco's Gobernador, Senor Castor. At once charming and sinister, Castor is clearly the power behind the Olifa throne. He has surrounded himself with a curious coterie of zombie-like lieutenants, known as the Conquistadors, together with an international bodyguard of classic Buchan roughs, with their usual complement of hatchet-faces, rabbit teeth, scars, broken noses and misshapen heads.
We gradually learn the truth about Castor and the Gran Seco: that the local Indian population is being exploited ruthlessly to feed the voracious appetite of the copper mines, and that the Conquistadors are kept in a permanent obsequious trance by the administration of a locally-produced drug. As for Castor himself, he has plans to destabilise the region before embarking on a crusade against the 'debris of democracy', from which he believes the world needs to be freed. Once this 'decaying refuse called popular liberties' has been cleared away, he means to introduce what he calls 'the reign of reason and the rule of law'. He has particular contempt for America, against which he means to fight a 'war to the death'.
The main part of the story recounts how Sandy, adopting as usual a range of disguises, aims to foil this wicked plot by leading a popular revolt against the Olifa regime, aided by Blenkiron (officially dead but secretly working undercover as Castor's deputy), and the local swashbuckling revolutionary leader, Luis de Marzaniga. Their aim is not simply to destroy the Gobernador but to make him see the error of his ways, and with this in mind he is kidnapped and taken to the rebels' idyllic mountain redoubt in the far north of the country, the Courts of the Morning of the title.
Buchan never visited South America, but clearly enjoyed creating this imaginary country, complete with its own convincing topography (there are several maps) and complex history. The vivid descriptions of the countryside may owe more to the author's memories of South Africa and his lifelong familiarity with the Scottish moors and glens than they do to first-hand knowledge of the continent, but they are no less effective for all that. The Courts of the Morning, for example, is described as follows:
A stranger could now have made out the main features of the landscape - a steep glen down from which the torrent from Choharua made its way to the sea, a glen not a cliff, a place by which it was possible to have access to the shore from the plateau. But that shore would not reveal itself. It lay far below in a broad ribbon of mist, flecked like a bird's wing, which separated the molten gold of the sea from the gold-washed, recreated world of the morning hills.
There are also some classic passages of page-turning suspense, such as when Janet Roylance is held hostage by Castor's ne'er-do-wells, before making her escape with Luis and Geordie, Indiana Jones-like, across a rope-bridge; or at the gripping climax to the novel when Barbara, Blenkiron's niece, attempts to avoid death at the hands of those same pursuers:
She bit hard into her lips and stood shivering. It was a man's body. She bent, and even in the dim light she saw by the uniform that it was one of the house-servants. He was dead. Her hands, as they touched his shoulder, felt something warm and sticky. At the same moment sounds, stealthy sounds, reached her ear from the direction of the courtyard. The murderers were there, and that way there was no escape.
At times, however, the book does get rather bogged down in the minute details of the revolt - troop movements, logistical problems and so on. It is as if John Buchan the novelist takes a back seat, and John Buchan the military strategist takes over. These are the 'long and involved accounts of guerrilla warfare' of which JB Priestley complained when reviewing the book for the Evening News. Also, Castor himself is a problem. Buchan is not entirely successful at convincing the reader of the plausibility of the Gobernador's conversion from an embodiment of megalomaniacal evil in the book's early chapters to Olifa's enlightened president-in-waiting at the end of the book. The reason for this difficulty is that, in a way, the author uses the character of Castor as a cipher. He is made to embody the dangers that Buchan foresaw - quite correctly as it turned out - in the concentration of power in the hands of men who were highly intelligent, no doubt, but who did not consider themselves bound by the moral constraints which applied to the rest of humanity. Castor makes a speech towards the end of the book which clearly reflects the author's own personal credo:
The spirit and mind of man are free to shape life if they are resolute enough and wise enough. A man is not the slave of his father's actions, or of his own. Any errors can be redeemed this side of the grave.
The fact that we do not entirely believe Castor to be capable of such 'redemption' does detract somewhat from the power of this story. As Andrew Lownie puts it in his biography of Buchan, the writer had 'allowed his mysticism and concern with contemporary politics to impede the narrative flow'. That being said, there is still much to enjoy in The Courts of the Morning, with its evocative imaginary landscape and periodic flashes of John Buchan's customary story-telling brilliance.
Neil Davie Paris 2001
This website is © The John Buchan Society 2005. Permission must be asked before using any material from this site, but no fee will be charged.