The Courts of the Morning by John Buchan (1929)

The Courts of the Morning is John Buchan’s 15th novel. Although Richard Hannay narrates the prologue, he then dips out of the story and lets the characters involved continue the narration. The characters include Sandy Arbuthnot, a master of disguise, Lawrence of Arabia type, and skilled linguist, who is the central character in a previous book, Greenmantle; John S. Blenkiron, a dyspeptic American also in Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast; Archie Roylance, a friend of Richard Hannay who pops up in a number of Buchan’s novels e.g. John Macnab. In this book he is newly married to Janet and as the story begins, they have just decided on a trip to South America for their honeymoon which they had previously delayed.
The Courts of the Morning takes place in the fictional country of Olifa in South America. Blenkiron discovers that the government of Olifa is controlled by the powerful Gobernador, Senor Castor, the owner of the booming Gran Seco copper mine.

‘The Gran Seco is the true Foreign Legion, and it needs no discipline. Castor asks only for two things, brains and submission to his will, and once a man enters his service he can never leave it.
…he did not need to keep a close eye on his subordinates; they had become automata, minor replicas of himself, whose minds worked in accurate conformity with his. Of this loyalty there could be no doubt; they had lost the capacity for treason, since treason implies initiative.’

Sandy and Blenkiron uncover Castor’s secret power over the ‘type Gran Seco’ who call themselves the new Conquistadors or conquerors and have surrendered their wills into the hand of their master. Castor is a gifted chemist and develops a drug to keep the Conquistadors subservient.

‘It kills in the end, but only after a considerable period, and during that period it gives increased intellectual vitality and an almost insane power of absorption, varied by languors like the opium-eaters. Those who once take to it can never free themselves, and they are the slaves of him who can supply it. Willing slaves, competent slaves, even happy slaves, but only the shadows of what once were men.’

Castor’s ultimate plan is to destroy Democracy and undermine America. Sandy who had often criticised America, when asked by Blenkiron’s niece, Barbara, why he was involving himself in a quarrel not his own said:

“I don’t know. I never analyse my motives. But I think I think I would go on with this affair, even if your uncle were out of it. You see, down at the bottom of my heart I hate the things that Castor stands for. I hate cruelty. I hate using human beings as pawns in a game of egotism. I hate all rotten, machine-made, scientific creeds. I loathe and detest all that superman cant, which is worse nonsense than the stuff it tries to replace. I really believe in liberty, though it’s out of fashion…And because America in her queer way is on the same side, I’m for America.”

The Courts of the Morning is an interesting adventure and it was a pleasure to have characters from previous novels involved in another plot. There were some situations where you had to suspend your disbelief, but hey, it’s John Buchan and that is often par for the course. One of these situations was when Archie and Janet trick Castor into coming aboard their boat for a meal and then kidnapping him. He was taken to the Courts of the Morning, a hideout in the mountains away from the city. It was while here that he began a friendship for the first time in his life and had a turnaround in his thinking – “We leave murder to your Conquistadors. We think so highly of you that we’re going to have a try at saving your soul.”

“This hill-top is bad for me,” he once told her. “I have no facts to work upon and I begin to make pictures. Wasn’t it Napoleon who said that we should never think in pictures, but always look at things as if through a telescope–bring reality close to one, but always reality?”

“Isn’t that begging the question?” the girl replied. “Reality for us is what we make of things. We may make them conform to our picture. It is what we all do. It is what you have been doing all your life, Excellency.”

“But your pictures and mine have been very different. I am a scientist and you are a romantic.”

“You are the romantic. You have tried to force the world inside a theory, and it is too big for that. We humble people never attempt the impossible. You are a self-deceiver, you know.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because of your intellectual pride. It is only humility that sees clearly and knows its limitations.”

The conversation between Janet and Castor above and Sandy’s comments below about megalomaniacs having no sense of humour are ideas I’ve come across in other novels. Josephine Tey’s Detective Grant said something similar about murderers in one of her books. I thought about the despots/megalomaniacs/murderers of recent history: Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot…how true – no humility and no humour.

“First of all, I need hardly tell you that the world to-day is stuffed with megalomania. Megalomania in politics, megalomania in business, megalomania in art–there are a dozen kinds. You have the man who wants to be a dictator in his own country, you have the man who wants to corner a dozen great businesses and 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 to 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 and that what would be left for their dictatorship would be an inanimate corpse. You see, for all their splendid gift they have no humour.”

The Courts of the Morning, free ebooks, ebook, etext (

I’m linking this post to The 1929 Club. There is one spot in this book that has the Jazz Age vibe although it was predominantly set far away from all that. 🙂

11 thoughts on “The Courts of the Morning by John Buchan (1929)

    • Oooh! Well, if you’d like a short, fast-paced story I’d say The 39 Steps. It’s his most famous book & was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. His Richard Hannay books are great to start with & they start with 39 Steps then…
      Mr Standfast – one of my favourites
      The Three Hostages
      The Courts of The Morning
      The Island of Sheep

      Others I really liked:
      John McNab
      Sick Heart River

      I’ve written about most of these & if you type in Buchan on the search thingo you should find them.


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  2. They don’t seem to have a epub version at Gutenberg Australia. Do you have to read it in HTML? (My reader doesn’t do HTML very well.) This would be one of two Hannays I haven’t read.


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