The Vintage Thrillers of John Buchan

In John Buchan’s The PowerHouse (1916), set in the golden twilightof the Edwardian era, a rising young barrister named Edward Leithen suffers aminor automobile mishap on a twisty country road. Luckily, he notices awell-maintained estate nearby, requests assistance, and soon finds himselfushered into the library of an apparent scholar. He is greeted there by theelderly but vigorous Andrew Lumley, a gentleman of impeccable manners andconsummate courtesy. Nonetheless, Lumley’s after-dinner conversation provesunnerving:

“Didyou ever reflect, Mr. Leithen, how precarious is the tenure of the civilizationwe boast about? … Reflect, and you will find that the foundations are sand. Youthink that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from barbarism.I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a pushthere, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.”

Lumleyinsists, for all the world like one of our modern radio conservatives, that “whenall is said and done, we are ruled by the amateurs and the second-rate. Themethods of our departments would bring any private firm to bankruptcy. Themethods of Parliament—pardon me—would disgrace any board of directors.” Whatthe world needs, according to Lumley, is “direction.” Given the rightenergizing force, what he calls a “power-house,” he delares that”the age of miracles will begin.”

Leithenis badly shaken by his host and his ideas. “The man had a curious terrorfor me, a terror I cannot hope to analyze and reproduce for you. My bald wordscan give no idea of the magnetic force of his talk, the sense of brooding andunholy craft,” above all the impression of “vast powers and banked-upfires.” Before long, Leithen discovers that his new acquaintance, likeProfessor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories, controls an invisiblecriminal empire; beneath his smiling, courtly mask he is both unrelenting andutterly ruthless. When, at the novel’s climax, the young lawyer desperatelyneeds to deliver an incriminating document to the French embassy, Leithen finallyrealizes just how vulnerable we all are, even when surrounded by a noisy andbusy metropolis:

I wasalone in that crowd, isolated and proscribed, and there was no help save in myown wits. … Now I saw how thin is the protection of civilization. An accidentand a bogus ambulance—a false charge and a bogus arrest—there were a dozen waysof spiriting me out of this gay, bustling world.

Merely totraverse the equivalent of a few city blocks, Leithen must call on everysubterfuge he can think of to escape a net fast closing around him. Eventually,though, he pauses for a moment, imagining that he is temporarily safe:

“A littlegroup of workmen with their tools were standing by the kerb, and they suddenlymoved towards me. A pavement artist, who looked like a cripple, scrambled tohis feet and moved in the same direction. There was a policeman at the corner,and I saw a well-dressed man go up to him, say something and nod in mydirection, and the policeman too began to move towards me.”

Leithen, no fool, starts to run.

Welcome,dear reader, to the thriller-world of John Buchan, a world of secret societies,anarchist plots, fanatical visionaries, shifting identities, and dark games of dominationand submission. While Buchan’s various protagonists—in particular, the lonelyEdward Leithen and the more famous Richard Hannay—are sometimes snidelycondescended to as mere “clubland heroes,” their adventuresrepeatedly take up fundamental questions of human and political interaction:How do you distinguish between friend and foe? Mask and reality? How do youconfront adversaries who either disdain or only mimic the established forms ofcivilized behavior?

Theremarkable John Buchan was born in 1875, grew up in a modest Scots household,and attended Glasgow University and Brasenose College, Oxford. While still astudent, he published three novels and many short stories, then graduated withfirst-class honors in Classics. As a young man, he worked as a lawyer, apublisher’s editor, and a journalist. Besides the thrillers for which he is nowlargely remembered, Buchan produced works of history, biography, and historicalfiction, not to overlook volumes as different as The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income and theautobiographical Memory Hold-the-Door(aka Pilgrim’s Rest). Committed to leading an active civic life, Buchan headedBritain’s department of information (i.e., propaganda) during World War I,served as a member of Parliament in the late 1920s, and in 1935 was madegovernor-general of Canada, at the same time being raised to the peerage asLord Tweedsmuir. In private, this multi-talented civil servant and man ofletters suffered from a painful duodenal ulcer, loved outdoor sports(especially fishing and mountain climbing), and was devoted to his family. In1940 Buchan died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at the relatively young ageof 65.

While contemporaryBritish thriller writers like Sapper (creator of Bulldog Drummond) and DornfordYates (whose “Berry and Co.” books chronicle the semi-humorousadventures of an extended upper-class family) are now largely unread, Buchanhas escaped oblivion because of the “precipitous yarn” that made hisname: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). Even people who’ve neverenjoyed the novel know the general outline of its plot from Alfred Hitchcock’s1935 film. Having made his “pile”as a mining engineer in South Africa, Richard Hannay returns to pre-World War ILondon, where he finds himself bored and lonely. But not for long. In shortorder, he learns of a secret conspiracy, discovers the dead body of an Americannamed Scudder in his flat, and impulsively goes on the run from both the policeand a powerful circle of mysterious foreign agents. His only clue to the latter’scovert purpose lies in an enigmatic phrase, “the thirty-nine steps.”

Hitchcockaltered the book’s action significantly—the music hall performer “Mr. Memory”doesn’t figure in the novel, nor is Hannay ever handcuffed to an attractiveyoung woman. For the modern thriller reader, The Thirty-Nine Stepsstands out for its unusually jaunty tone. Dodging his pursuers with one trickafter another, Hannay views his adventure as an especially spirited version ofhide-and-seek or a slightly dangerous prep-school lark: “I am an ordinarysort of fellow, not braver than other people, but I hate to see a good mandowned, and that long knife would not be the end of Scudder if I could play thegame in his place.”

Periodically,Hannay entrusts his safety to men who seem “clean” or “white.”But how does one tell a possible ally from a well camouflaged enemy? At onepoint, the fugitive asks for help from a plump gentleman, whose study is filledwith books and curiosities: “His face was round and shiny, like Mr.Pickwick’s, big glasses were stuck on the end of his nose, and the top of hishead was as bright and bare as a glass bottle.” Is this Dickensiancharacter the innocent he appears to be? As Hannay observes, those who reallyact a part submerge themselves entirely in their personae: “A fool triesto look different; a clever man looks the same and is different.”

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a rattling good yarn, but onemust be prepared for certain period prejudices. Before he is murdered by theBlack Stone, the American agent Scudder tells Hannay that “if you’re onthe biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one youare brought up against a little, white-faced Jew in a bathchair, with an eyelike a rattlesnake. Yes, sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now.”An abhorrent stereotype, yes, but it’s important to underscore that these arethe opinions of a character, not necessarily the author. Later in the novel,Sir Walter Bullivant, head of the British secret service, stresses that Scudder”had a lot of odd biases … Jews, for example, made him see red. Jews andthe high finance.”

After thesuccess of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan brought out The Power-House—the first adventure of EdwardLeithen, a buttoned-down barrister rather like himself—and then followed withthe second Hannay story: Greenmantle. The latter is remarkable onseveral counts. For one, it’s an undercover spy novel, set behind enemy linesand published in the middle of World War I. Second, it focuses on Germanmilitary strategy in the Middle East. And third, it introduces several “regulars”of the Buchan universe. One is the American “businessman” John S. Blenkiron,who nurses (like his creator) a duodenal ulcer, drinks only milk, playsconstant games of patience, and is possibly the greatest secret agent alive.The other is “Sandy” Arbuthnot, later Lord Clanroyden, who is clearlymodeled after Sir Richard Burton, the dashing Aubrey Herbert, and T. E.Lawrence (“of Arabia”). Sandy speaks exotic languages like a native,has spent time in the Far East studying the occult, and is a master ofdisguise. “In the caravanserais of Bokhara and Samarkand he is known, andthere are shikaris in the Pamirs who still speak of him round their fires…. IfFate compelled you to go to Lhasa or Yarkand or Seistan he could map your roadfor you and pass the word to potent friends.” The last of the heroes isthe old South African hunter, scout, and survivalist, Peter Pienaar. It wasPienaar who taught Hannay that “if you were going to play a part, you mustthink yourself into it, convince yourself that you were it, till you really were it and didn’t act but behaved naturally.”

When SirWalter Bullivant’s son—working as a field agent—is killed, he only has time to passon a half-sheet of notepaper with three scribbled words: “Kasredin,” “cancer,”and “v. I.” No one can make much of them. Still, British intelligencehas picked up rumors of a big German operation in the Middle East, oneinvolving “some holy thing, some book or gospel, or some new prophet fromthe desert.” Sir Walter stresses that reports from agents everywhere tellthe same story: “The East is waiting for a revelation. It has beenpromised one. Some star—man, prophecy, or trinket—is coming out of the West.”For the British at war with Germany, the stakes “are no less than victoryand defeat.”

And soHannay, Blenkiron, and Arbuthnot, later joined by Pienaar, undertake a suicidemission that will take them through Germany and down the Danube, first toConstantinople and later into the heart of Asia Minor. Along the way they willencounter the sado-masochistic commandant Ulrich von Stumm, whose bedroom isdecorated like a woman’s boudoir; the vengeful Rasta Bey, who guesses the truthabout the disguised Hannay; and the dervish-like members of a strange cultknown as “The Companions of the Rosy Hours.” Most dangerous of all,though, is Hilda von Einem, feared by all who serve her, a slender beautifulwoman with a delicate face and eyes that can see into a man’s soul. At thenovel’s climax, Hannay and his friends will reunite for a last stand againstinsuperable odds, even as Islamic prophecies find their unexpected fulfillment.

Hannay—nowBrigadier General Hannay—returns in Mr.Standfast (1919), where he re-encounters the Germanmastermind of The Thirty-Nine Stepsand meets the woman who will become his wife. I will say no more of it, nor ofEdward Leithen’s subsequent exploits inJohn MacNab (1925), The Dancing Floor (1926), and The Gap in the Curtain (1932). In the last Leithen novel, SickHeart River (1941)—a wonderful title sadly changed to Mountain Meadow in the American edition—the now very distinguished lawyer,and former Solicitor-General, travels to Canada for what Peter Pan once calledthe last and greatest adventure.

Thatfinal Leithen—published just after its author’s own death—may be the mostpersonal of Buchan’s thrillers, but his best is, to my mind, the fourth andlast Hannay adventure, The Three Hostages (1924). The novel opens after thewar, when Sir Richard and Mary, Lady Hannay, have both retired from derring-do.They intend to cultivate their garden—or rather their landed estate—and to huntand fish and rear their young son. But, inevitably, a dire emergency arises andold friends turn to Hannay for help.

The world’spolice are quietly closing in on a vast criminal organization, but its unknownleader has almost preternaturally sensed that his operations are beingthreatened. To thwart any serious interference, this mastermind orders threepeople kidnapped: “the daughter of the richest man in the world, the heirof our greatest dukedom, the only child of a national hero.” The threehostages seemingly disappear from the face of the earth.

“Whythe devil can’t I be left alone?” cries Sir Richard. “I don’t ask formuch—only a little peace.” But Lady Hannay, particularly touched by theplight of the kidnapped little boy—it could be their own son—quietly tells herhusband: “Of course you are going to help.” The only clues arecontained in a bit of eerie doggerel that refers to a place under the midnightsun, a blind spinner beside a sacred tree, and a sower in the fields of Eden.

Throughunlikely means, Hannay links the odd bit of verse to Dominick Medina, a youngpolitician of Irish descent, who is also an admired, if rather melancholy poet.(W. B. Yeats believed he was the partial model for Medina.) All London, itwould seem, is under the spell of this charismatic and “extraordinarilyattractive” charmer. “He has a curious musical voice and eyes thatwarm you—glow like sunlight.” When Hannay finally meets Medina, he too isimmediately entranced: “He greeted me as if he had been living for thishour.”

WhileHannay is eager to recruit Medina as an ally in the search for the threehostages, Sandy Arbuthnot remains distinctly hesitant. “I had a friend whoknew him,” he says, and then adds, without explanation, that “Medinadidn’t do him any good.” Meanwhile, Buchan keeps even his walk-oncharacters talking about subconscious impulses, hypnotic powers, and masspersuasion.

After aThursday Club dinner, Hannay readily accepts an invitation for a nightcap atMedina’s house. The pair naturally ensconce themselves in the library:

It wasoblong, with deep bays at each end, and it was lined from floor to ceiling withbooks. Books, too, were piled on the tables, and sprawled on a big flat couchwhich was drawn up before the fire. It wasn’t an ordinary gentleman’s library …It was the working collection of a scholar, and the books had that used lookwhich makes them the finest tapestry for a room. The place was light withlights on small tables, and on a big desk under a reading-lamp were masses ofpapers and various volumes with paper slips in them. It was a workshop as wellas a library.

Librariesand similar retreats are always a clue in Buchan thrillers. Sir WalterBullivant’s study—glimpsed in TheThirty-Nine Steps—was “a jolly room full of books and trophies anduntidiness and comfort.” Medina’s, as Hannay later discovers, contains alarge number of volumes dealing with the occult and the “forgottenknowledge” of the East.

In shortorder, the eminent Sir Richard Hannay finds himself assailed by a psychicattack strong enough to spirit a man’s soul from his body. Then Sandy suddenlydisappears, on some secret mission of his own, sending only occasional letterssigned with pseudonyms (one of them is “Buchan,” the name of asupposed Derby winner). Finally, Medina introduces Hannay to a great Indiansage named Kharama, who possesses the ability to control a person’s will and,if so desired, create a psychic bondage so strong that it can never be broken.

Much elsehappens in The Three Hostages. At thedarkest moment, Lady Hannay—once a trusted agent of Sir Walter Bullivant—mustcome out of retirement. Few people turn out to be quite what they seem.Adversaries end up stalking each other in the craggy Scottish wilds. It’s allquite thrilling.

If you’venever read John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps is the logicalstarting point. It’s available in several editions or as part of an omnibus,published by Godine, titled The FourAdventures of Richard Hannay. I’mpersonally fond of The Power-House,which both begins the Leithen cycle and adumbrates many of the elements of The Three Hostages, albeit in a leaner, less psychologicallydisturbing form. I’ve yet to read the early PresterJohn, a South African adventure nowviewed as a children’s classic in the mode of Treasure Island. A selection from Buchan’s shortfiction has been recently issued by Penguin as The Strange Adventures of Mr. Andrew Hawthorn and Other Stories, while the admirable Ash-TreePress has gathered together his many supernatural tales in The Watcher by the Threshold.

Thereare, it must be admitted, lots of improbabilities in John Buchan’s thrillers,and some of the novels—notably Greenmantle—tendto go on a bit too long. Moreover, none of the few women in the books rise muchabove stereotype, nor do the heroes quite possess the mythic charisma of aSherlock Holmes or a James Bond. While Buchan’s prose is always clear andefficient, it only sings when describing landscape or the outdoors.Nonetheless, these novels still reliably convey that most characteristic frisson of the modern thriller: thefeeling of menace behind the everyday. For instilling this universal unease,one must thank Buchan’s villains—some quietly unobtrusive, some virtuallyNapoleonic in the magnitude of their devilry. Behind the scenes, workingdiligently in their quiet libraries, they ensure that the world remains adeeply unsafe place.