The Novels of John Buchan

After a few weeks of low-grade ill-health, not life-threatening but disagreeable and debilitating, I retreated to comfort reading, and chose The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan, who died in Canada in 1940 as Governor-General, the Lord Tweedsmuir PC, CH and much more. Buchan was a Scot who did well for himself in England, becoming a publisher, an MP, a prolific author, a man who knew everybody important and was thought well of by almost everybody.

The Thirty-Nine Steps was written early in the First World War, and is a short thriller about German plotting in the lead-up the the conflict; it is one of the early page-turners. Almost everything happens to the hero, Richard Hannay, and he gets out of one scrape only to get into another one. Buchan was master in writing adventure stories, and his novels are all enjoyable, action-packed and filled with incident and ‘country’. He is just about forgotten today, though the Steps has been made into a film four times, in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock, and then in 1959, 1978 and 2008. I haven’t seen the most recent version. The Hitchcock film has been described as one of the greatest British films ever made.

Richard Hannay appeared in five novels, of which Steps was the first. The next two, Greenmantle and Mr Standfast, are set in the War, and the remaining two, The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep, in the 1920s. I encountered him first in Greenmantle, which our class was studying  (=reading aloud) when I, a new boy, arrived at my new secondary school. Either I had forgotten to bring the textbook, or I hadn’t been issued with it, but we had a copy in our house, so I took that. When it was my turn to read I went on confidently, and discovered quickly that the class had the abridged version. Not a happy moment for the new boy.

Hannay was one of my boyhood heroes, like Bulldog Drummond, the Saint, Biggles and Norman Conquest, a Saint-like guy who appeared in dozens of thrillers apparently written by someone called Berkeley Grey (actually E. S. Brooks). When I discovered one book in any of the series I couldn’t rest until I had read all the ones our library had or that I could borrow from friends. Years later I went back to the books I had loved at twelve or so, and discovered that they were all full of racial prejudice, gender stereotyping, stiff upper lip, British notions of honour, and all the rest.

No matter, I found the Steps just as enjoyable a couple of days ago as it had been when I read it first. I’ve re-read all the Hannay novels. They’re just the thing when you’re not well, and need something to take your mind off your woes. Greenmantle is a great yarn. Hannay is pulled out of the trenches to go and find out the meaning of some mysterious words on a scrap of paper, and his journey leads him through Germany and Austria, along the Danube, through the Black Sea to Constantinople and then Erzerum, near the border between Turkey and Russia. Buchan is great at chases — most of the Steps has Hannay on the run, and there’s a good deal of that in Greenmantle too.

I think it would make a great film, but in fact apart from Steps, and the BBC’s twice having made TV series films out The Three Hostages, there has been little interest on the part of film-makers in his novels. Buchan wrote an awful lot — 35 novels and 52 books of non-fiction — and I confess that I have only read a couple of the non-fiction works. His autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door, is full of interest, because of his capacity to evoke a place or a time crisply and memorably. He tells of his feeling of the continuity of history in learning from an elderly nanny who looked after his children (in 1929, or thereabouts, from memory) of how she had heard, as a little girl, from her aged granny, how that lady’s aged granny had heard the bagpipes of Scottish regiments as they came through Perth on their way to the battle at Culloden in 1745. That’s a bit short of 200 years, in three human memories.

Buchan located his other adventure novels in several different time periods and settings. Prester John, which he wrote well before the Great War, is set in South Africa, with a Hannay-like hero, Witch Wood (which he thought his best novel) was set in 17th century England, The House Of Four Winds, in a mythical Central European country Evallonia. But they all feel like real places with real people. You can pick them up, read them and put them down with a satisfied feeling.

The sad thing is that Buchan himself thought his ‘shockers’ were completely lightweight; he reserved his pride for his serious work, his histories and biographies. They have disappeared from view, but the shockers live on.

Update: I forgot to mention that The Thirty-Nine Steps has been turned into a fine comic thriller, with three actors doing all the work, with amazingly rapid costume changes. Why did I forget? I thoroughly enjoyed it when I saw it a couple of years ago.]

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Peter Donnan says:

    It’s quite natural, as we age, that we tend to return to the classics and the gems of our past. Indeed, what’s wrong with Shakespeare, Austen, Chekhov, Yeats? They provide a solace and source of comfort and because they explore perennial life themes, they are relevant to any age.

    In terms of scientific literature, however, and critical themes such as climate change, there are very few, if any, seminal works or classics. One needs to be abreast of current and unfolding research and if I mentioned Al Gore, for instance, there would be howls of electronic derision. One needs to be attuned to the present and the future, especially the immediate future.

    Even in terms of reading literature, as a generalisation we tend, if we are older, to prefer the texture of the printed Penguin classics or familiar, hardcover editions rather than e-readers or tablets?

    Two novels that I have recently read are Drusilla Modjeska’s ‘The Mission’ – a novel set in New Guinea, and Tim Winton’s ‘Eyrie’ which explores the world of a fragile, burnt-out greenie activist. They were both published this year. They are not great novels but certainly worth a Christmas read and what commends them most is that they focus on our contemporary worlds; they illuminate the signs of our times.

    T. S. Eliot was aware that we all like ‘certain certainties’ but our physical world, our financial and political environments, no longer offer that; we need to discern the signs of the times which means blending the best of the past with the unfolding and sometimes troublesome future.

  • Fay Thomson says:

    Don thank you for the book talk featuring John Buchanan- it’s always good to have a classic and to be able to tell the young about them.
    A book I and members of my family and friends have enjoyed is “A Simpler Time” about the childhood of Peter Fitzsimmons. I am a fan of his , even copying his way of speaking- “Gotta tell you this one” he will say and I find myself using this abbreviated way of speech too.
    Hope you are better now.

  • John McAneney says:

    Don — Thirty-Nine Steps is currently having very good success after being adapted for the stage as a comic ‘thriller’. I’ve seen it in Auckland and then in London and each was wonderful. Hope you are feeling better.

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